The role of Parliament in checking the legitimacy of a sitting government

By Mohsin Abdullah

I know the title for this article is a mouthful. Forgive me, but taking into account of the current political situation in the country, asking the role of the Parliament in checking the legitimacy of a sitting government seems to be the right, if not the only, thing to do now.

It's common knowledge that the Perikatan Nasional government, in particular prime minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin himself, has never made it public or announce officially the numbers they have in the Parliament, i.e. the majority it holds.

Hence, we are left to do the math on our own, like when the government's motion to remove Tan Sri Mohamad Ariff Yusof as Dewan Rakyat Speaker was tabled in the Parliament back in July. The motion was passed by narrow vote with 111 government MPs in support and 109 from Pakatan Harapan against it. Two MPs did not vote.

The two, notwithstanding, we took it to mean, or rather "assumed", that the Muhyiddin-led PN government holds just a two-seat advantage. A razor-thin majority much too close for comfort.

That was then. Is that the number now?

Hard to tell. What more with all the political developments going on at present.

Shouldn't the Parliament settle this nagging issue once and for all? Or to put it the other way, shouldn't the Parliament be the stage to determine the majority the current government has? To prove its legitimacy?

Veteran Umno leader Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah certainly thinks so. I'm sure many share his take on the matter.

In his letter to Dewan Rakyat Speaker Datuk Azhar Harun which went viral a few days ago, Tengku Razaleigh listed the reasons giving emphasis on the Federal Constitution.

Many would have read news reports about this, if not the letter itself. So I shall not go into specifics. A brief recap will suffice.

Via the letter Tengku Razaleigh had asked Azhar why a no-confidence motion was not debated in the Dewan Rakyat during the Parliament sessions between July 13 and August 27.

We can easily recall that Langkawi MP Tun Mahathir Mohamad had submitted a motion of no-confidence against prime minister Muhyiddin which was accepted by Ariff when he was Speaker but was not debated during Azhar's tenure, citing government business should take precedence over other matters and Private Member business as reason.

As Tengku Razaleigh sees it, the no-confidence motion is important based on constitutional factors, including the legitimacy of the current government under the prime minister's leadership.

And he believes the motion should have been debated as a matter of importance "with utmost priorities" for the current government to prove its legitimacy.

"Without the confidence of the Dewan Rakyat, the prime minister has no right to claim legitimacy, and sidestepping the fact can be construed as a form of bad intention and falsehood towards the Constitution," according to Tengku Razaleigh.

The Gua Musang MP therefore wants a guarantee that a no-confidence motion could be tabled against the prime minister in the coming Dewan Rakyat sitting scheduled to recommence on November 2.

Somehow, the longest serving MP in Malaysian politics saw it appropriate to also state in his letter that he was offered by prime minister Muhyiddin the post of adviser in Petronas which he rejected. And in the same breath, he spoke about "political bribery has eroded our constitutional democracy".

That remarks naturally are open to interpretations which I don't intend to dwell into.

Speaker Azhar's appointment has always been shrouded in controversy from day one. Many see him suspiciously, accusing him as partisan and siding with the government despite all the denials, explanations and justifications.

The way the government went about removing Ariff to be replaced by Azhar obviously shaped all the negative perceptions and allegations.

As we know, upon receiving Tengku Razaleigh's letter, Azhar replied, also via letter. Quite lengthy I would say.

Put simply, Azhar dismissed claims that the no confidence motion was not debated because it was listed towards the end of the Order Paper.

It is widely believed (or alleged) that putting the motion towards the end of the Order Paper would make it impossible for the motion to be debated due to insufficient time as matters listed higher up would have to be taken care of until the sitting is adjourned.

It would be worth to note that a confidence motion for the prime minister submitted by government MPs has not been debated either. But then no-confidence motion and confidence motion bring the same consequences to the prime minister.

In the case of no-confidence motion, he needs to defeat it to stay in office, failing which he must resign.

For confidence motion, he must win, failing which he must also resign.

Either motion, the prime minister's political survival is at stake as he would be tested in the Parliament.

Back to Azhar's reply to Tengku Razaleigh. the Speaker said he had no objection to Tengku Razaleigh's suggestion for motions to be tabled in the coming parliamentary sitting "if government matters or ministers' motions are concluded beforehand".

Again, he cited Standing Orders stating that government matters shall have precedence over Private Members business on every sitting day.

But to constitutional expert Professor Datuk Shad Saleem Faruqi, the Speaker is relying on the Standing Orders when "the Standing Orders are not even a law but merely internal rules of the House".

According to the law expert, as quoted by news portal The Vibes, Standing Orders were not passed by the Parliament and do not qualify as law and therefore cannot override Article 43 (4) of the Constitution which deals with the issue of loss of confidence.

The Standing Orders, on the other hand, regulate internal proceedings of the House and cannot regulate or control matters provided in the Constitution, said Shad Faruqi.

"The issue of confidence is not an internal matter but goes to the heart of a parliamentary democracy," said Faruqi.

Anyway, as far as Azhar is concerned, should Tengku Razaleigh want priority be given to specific Private Members motion, when government businesses are still at hand, "it is advised that Tan Sri (referring to Tengku Razaleigh) negotiate with Datuk Takiyuddn Hassan to do so". Takiyuddin is of course the de facto law minister in charge of Parliament affairs.

Some people see this as Azhar "pushing the buck to the minister". More damaging, others see this as "confirmation that the Speaker is under the thumb and take instructions from the minister, i.e. the government".

Well know lawyer Siti Kasim posted on Facebook to say among other things that under the Malaysian parliamentary system, the Leader of the House is the prime minister but "it appears that he delegates the business of the House to the minister in the PM's department in charge of parliamentary affairs and law."

That would be Takiyuddin.

"So, if you read it properly," according to Siti Kasim, "Art (as Azhar is popularly known) is right. The duty falls on Takiyuddin to discuss with the opposition on the order of the day."

Whether Takiyuddin is agreeable to Tengku Razaleigh's request (should the Umno leader decides to meet up with the minister), well, your guess is as good as mine.

But, according to political analyst Dr Sivamurugan Pandian, "at the end of the day, Ketua Dewan (Leader of the House) and the Speaker play pertinent role".

Here's the thing, though. In the words of veteran journalist Datuk A Kadir Jasin, the onus is on Muhyiddin himself to prove his legitimacy as prime minister by allowing for him to be tested in the Parliament.

I agree. But will Muhyiddin go for it  But then there's the national Budget which he must get passed in the Parliament. Failing which? We know the answer. So, too the PM.

(Mohsin Abdullah is a veteran journalist and now a freelancer who writes about this, that and everything else.)

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