Constitutionally, unless sooner dissolved, state legislative assemblies will be dissolved five years from its first sitting.
Since the Sarawak State Legislative Assembly had its first sitting on 7th June 2016, the state legislative assembly should have been dissolved (at the latest) by June 2021 and state elections be called within 60 days from the date of the dissolution.
As a result of the nationwide Proclamation of Emergency issued on 11th January 2021 and the Emergency (Essential Powers) Ordinance 2021, the “provisions relating to an election for the election to a State Legislative Assembly …, Constitution of any State and any State Law [has] effect.”
This means that the constitutional necessity for the Sarawak state elections to be held is temporarily suspended until either the Emergency is no longer in force or the Yang di-Pertuan Agong sets a state election date after consultation with the Yang di-Pertua Negeri of Sarawak.
At the present moment, the Emergency is scheduled to cease after 1st August 2021 and the Malay Rulers have stated that “there is no necessity to place the country under a state of emergency after Aug 1, 2021.”
Tan Sri Datuk Amar Dr. James Jemut Masing, the Deputy Chief Minister of Sarawak, has voiced his concerns that the Sarawak state elections have to be conducted once the Emergency comes to an end.
At this juncture, such concerns are perfectly valid as the Sabah state elections had catastrophic effects on COVID-19 cases in the state.
As admitted by Tan Sri Dato Seri Haji Mahiaddin Bin Haji Md Yassin, the current Prime Minister of Malaysia, and supported by researches which have been conducted, the Sabah state elections resulted in a third wave of COVID-19 infections in the country.
One option to further defer the Sarawak state elections would be by way of a statewide Proclamation of Emergency.
If what happened in Sabah were projected/predicted to happen to Sarawak as a result of the Sarawak state elections, this would be a “grave emergency … whereby the security, or the economic life, or public order in … [Sarawak] is threatened.”
Precedents for a statewide Proclamation of Emergency exist. In the past, statewide Emergencies were declared in Sarawak and in Kelantan due to political instability.
Prior to the nationwide Emergency, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong also issued a Proclamation of Emergency over the parliamentary constituency of Batu Sapi resulting in a postponement of a by-election due to a casual vacancy.
As of 21st June 2021, only 29.89% of the population of Sarawak has been vaccinated.
A further Emergency in Sarawak would enable the health authorities to continue their vaccination efforts and potentially achieve herd immunity (or full vaccination) before the Sarawak state elections are held.
The Election Commission would also be able to use the time to refine its standard operating procedures for elections conducted in the midst of the pandemic.
Speculation is rife that a proclamation of emergency may be on its way.
Pursuant to Article 150(1) of the Federal Constitution, “If the Yang di-Pertuan Agong [“YDPA”] is satisfied that a grave emergency exists whereby the security, or the economic life, or public order in the Federation or any part thereof is threatened, he may issue a Proclamation of Emergency making therein a declaration to that effect.” (emphasis mine)
In the past, amongst others, the YDPA issued a Proclamation of Emergency:
i. in 1966, in the state of Sarawak, due to political instability;
ii. in 1969, nationwide, due to the 13 May 1969 racial riots; and
iii. in 1977, in the state of Kelantan, due to political instability.
Interestingly, all three Proclamations of Emergency were only repealed in 2011.
Presently, the following are undisputed:
a. The current government holds a very slim majority in Parliament;
b. There is ongoing political instability; and
c. The Supply Bill 2021 has to be tabled in Parliament soon.
If Tan Sri Muhyiddin bin Yassin (“TSMY”) does not table the Supply Bill 2021, there will likely be a government shutdown.
If TSMY tables the Supply Bill 2021 but fails to get it passed in Parliament, he will have to resign and either a new Prime Minister will be sworn in or Parliament will be dissolved and there will be a general election held within sixty days from the date of the dissolution.
The Malaysian United Indigenous Party (“PPBM“), under the leadership of Tan Sri Muhyiddin bin Haji Muhammad Yassin, has agreed to be a part of the Muafakat Nasional (“MN“) coalition.
Tan Sri Annuar Musa, the Secretary General of the Barisan Nasional (“BN“) coalition and the Minister of Federal Territories, has stated that MN has agreed in principle regarding PPBM’s wish to join the coalition.
At its inception, MN only consisted of the United Malays National Organisation (“UMNO“) and the Malaysian Islamic Party (“PAS“).
A necessary formality?
PPBM’s joining of MN appears to be mere formality as PPBM, UMNO, PAS, and a host of parties from Sabah and Sarawak informally formed the Perikatan Nasional (“PN”) federal government.
The PN federal government, however, even with the inclusion of UMNO and PAS, only have a precarious 2-3 seats majority in the House of Representatives.
When UMNO announced that it would not become part of PN should the informal coalition be registered, it then became necessary for PPBM to formally align itself with UMNO and PAS in order to remain a part of the federal government .
PPBM is the weakest of the three.
It cannot be disputed that PAS & UMNO have strong grassroots support. The same, however, cannot be said about PPBM.
PPBM, being a relatively new national party, experienced exponential growth in its first few years largely due to Tun Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad (“Tun M”).
Tun M, a seasoned politician and a former Prime Minister, commands great respect and support amongst the masses.
When Tun M left PPBM, an exodus soon ensued. Since his departure from PPBM, Tun M has announced the setting up of the Party of Homeland’s Fighters (“PEJUANG“).
Various PPBM branches have since been dissolved due to lack of members.
There are rumours circulating that there may be snap polls as early as this year to resolve the political crisis plaguing the country.
The Election Commission (“EC”) chairman, Datuk Azhar bin Azizan @ Harun, has stated that the EC is prepared for such an eventuality.
There are a few reasons why it would be more strategic for the Perikatan Nasional (“PN”) government and/or its coalition partners to call for snap polls this year rather than at a later date.
Reason 1: The likely unfavourable youth vote
Although Parliament has passed a constitutional amendment lowering the voting age to 18, the EC appears to only be able to implement this sometime in June/July 2021.
It cannot be denied that the constitutional amendment required bipartisan effort. Nevertheless, it is largely seen to be a Pakatan Harapan (“PH”) initiative especially since it is a fulfilment of Promise 17 of PH’s 14th General Election (“GE14”) manifesto.
Further, with regard to GE14, the youth vote (namely those aged 40 years old and below) has been largely credited as one of the reasons PH succeeded.
PH, at least at the time of GE14, was largely popular with younger voters. If this is still the case, it would be better for PN to conduct snap polls this year rather than wait for new youth votes (namely of those aged 18 to 20) to be thrown into the mix.
Reason 2: The influx of unpredictable new votes
In March 2017, the then Election Commission chairman stated that there were a total of 4.1 million unregistered voters.
Once the automatic voter registration system comes into force, which is estimated to be sometime in mid-2021, these unregistered voters will become registered and will be entitled to vote in any subsequent snap polls.
Since the 4 million individuals are currently unregistered, there are no data sets with regard to their voting patterns/behaviours. These unpredictable new votes may or may not work against PN.
In order to err on the safe side, it would be more strategic for snap polls to be held this year.
Reason 3: The fresh success in containing COVID-19
Shortly after Tan Sri Muhyiddin bin Haji Muhammad Yassin took over the helm, his leadership faced a major test in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic. He has done a sufficiently good job thus far and Malaysia has been hailed as one of the top five countries in the world to have successfully contained COVID-19.
COVID-19 will be fresh on the minds of the voters and it may be strategic to capitalise on this as a talking point in favour of the PN government.
Strategy aside, snap polls would place power back in the hands of the electorate. The issue of the legitimacy of the PN government can be resolved determinatively at the ballot box.
Editor’s Note: This article also appeared on Malaysiakini, and The Malaysian Insight
The Speaker of the House of Representatives (Dewan Rakyat), Tan Sri Mohamad Ariff bin Md Yusof, has stated that he will contact Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin to enquire whether the first meeting of the 3rd session of the 14th Parliament, scheduled for 9th March 2020, will proceed or be postponed.
The last sitting of the last session of the House of Representatives was on 5th December 2019. Meanwhile, the last sitting of the last session of the Senate (Dewan Negara) was on 19th December 2019.
Article 55(1) of the Federal Constitution states:
“The Yang di-Pertuan Agong shall from time to time summon Parliament and shall not allow six months to elapse between the last sitting in one session and the date appointed for its first meeting in the next session.”
Some have equivocated “Parliament” in Article 55(1) of the Federal Constitution with the House of Representatives, and concluded that the six months will lapse on 5th June 2020.
However, Article 44 of the Federal Constitution on the Constitution of Parliament states:
“The legislative authority of the Federation shall be vested in a Parliament, which shall consist of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and two Majlis (Houses of Parliament) to be known as the Dewan Negara (Senate) and the Dewan Rakyat (House of Representatives).”
In the present case, reading Articles 55(1) and 44 of the Federal Constitution together, it would appear that the Yang di-Pertuan Agong (“YDPA“) has to summon Parliament before the expiry of 6 months from the last sitting of the last session of the Senate rather that of the House of Representatives.
The Eleventh Schedule to the Federal Constitution defines “month” to mean calendar month according to the Gregorian calendar.
However, as will be examined below, there are conflicting cases with regard to the calculation of a “month.”
Datuk Seri Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man, deputy president of the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), has openly stated that PAS intends to table a vote of confidence in the lower house of Parliament.
According to PAS’ secretary general, Dato’ Takiyuddin Hassan, the proposal to table a vote of confidence arose as a result of rumours that certain quarters were not happy with Tun Dr Mahathir.
It would be reasonable to assume that the dissatisfaction (if true), has to do with inter alia Tun Dr Mahathir’s non-committal vis-a-vis the promised handover of premiership to Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.
Commanding the confidence of the majority
A Prime Minister has to, in the Yang di-Pertuan Agong (YDPA)’s judgement, “command the confidence of the majority of the members of [the Dewan Rakyat].”
In the event the Prime Minister “… ceases to command the confidence of the majority of the members of the [Dewan Rakyat], then, unless at his request the Yang di-Pertuan Agong dissolves Parliament, the Prime Minister shall tender the resignation of the Cabinet.”
Such constitutional provisions, not uncommon in other countries, have led to the creation of a parliamentary mechanism known as the ‘vote of no confidence.’