Friday, September 26, 2008

UMNO: Into uncertain, uncharted waters

Into uncertain, uncharted waters
by P. Gunasegaram

LIKE multi-directional waves colliding and breaking up into swirling, eddying pools of turbulence and dangerous undertows, a confluence of events has raised the uncertainty level tremendously in the country this last couple of weeks.

This is no time to be in denial that things are going to work themselves out and reassure the fickle foreign fund manager that everything is okay by rushing out to talk to them. It is time to put head and heart together to resolve things. If we do, the funds will come back – that may not be entirely good, but that has to be the subject of another article.

We already have a new finance minister but the troubling question is whether we will have a new prime minister as well soon. If that is not bad enough, the nation is not even sure if the new premier will be from the ruling coalition Barisan Nasional or the opposition Pakatan Rakyat which claims it has enough seats in Parliament via crossovers to form the new government.

As if all that were not bad enough, spectacular collapses of major Wall Street investment banks and the ongoing US housing mortgage crisis threaten a market meltdown to rival that of the Great Depression of the late 1920s and 30s. A quick US$700 billion (RM2.4 trillion) rescue plan being cobbled together by the US government has assuaged jittery financial markets somewhat, but expect "uncertainty" to be the operative word for a while yet.

The silver lining in that dark cloud, is for once we have something else even more ominous than our own political uncertainty and lack of direction on which to blame poor stock market performance.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi should be steadfast in his resolve to hand over the reins of power in Umno to his deputy Datuk Seri Najib Razak in 2010 as planned and not succumb to factions within Umno and step down as leader of the party before that, and as early as next month.

For all the perception of Abdullah being a weak leader, he has undoubtedly the greatest sense of fair play among the current crop of top Umno leaders. He demonstrated his intent to hand over power smoothly to the states which were won by the Opposition on March 8.

That one quality may prove crucial in the current environment where the Opposition may have enough seats to command a majority in Parliament. As morally repugnant as such a route to power may be, it is not illegal and has happened before, most notably in Sabah in 1994 when Datuk Joseph Pairin Kitingan was forced to step down as chief minister after members of his party crossed over to the Barisan Nasional. In earlier decisions, the courts actually ruled it was unconstitutional to stop crossovers.

Perhaps what goes around comes around. Now Pakatan head and parliamentary Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, reputedly the person who engineered the Sabah crossovers when he was with Barisan, claims he has the requisite numbers to form the new government. Unconfirmed talk is he has 34 MPs ready to cross, four more than the requisite 30, with up to another five ready to follow.

While this column, based on the view of a constitutional expert, said last week that the only way forward for Anwar was to move a vote of no confidence in Parliament, it has since reversed its position after taking into account the views of other constitutional experts. We apologise for that.

It appears that there may be other remedies as indicated in the 1994 Sabah case and a 1963 Nigerian case which went before the Privy Council as well as other examples in Commonwealth countries. (For a fuller discussion, see theSun on Monday, Sept 22. See also page 20).

Essentially, it looks like the King can exercise his discretionary powers to bring about a change in government if he is satisfied that somebody else other than the current prime minister commands the majority. That can include a signed document indicating their support of Anwar by the relevant MPs but it is not limited to that. The King can use his discretion too to dissolve Parliament and call for fresh elections. That means if Anwar can show the King that he commands the majority in Parliament and if the King is satisfied with that, the King can take the necessary measures to make Anwar the prime minister or dissolve Parliament in favour of fresh elections.

And here are the billion ringgit questions: If indeed Anwar already has a majority of MPs behind him, what method will he use to convince the King that he has? And will the King agree with him? And if the King does, will there be a smooth transition of power?

And here’s where Abdullah comes in. If a change in government takes place with all legal conditions being met, he more than any other Umno top leader, is likely to accede and facilitate a smooth transition to power. Is that why some Umno leaders want Abdullah to step down sooner rather than later? After all, didn’t all the leaders in Umno agree to the transition plan earlier so why are they changing their minds now?

Hopefully, Abdullah will hold on to his promise to relinquish power in 2010. But no matter who is in charge and what the consequence for Umno and Barisan Nasional, it is incumbent upon him to ensure that the rule of the law is always upheld during these troubled times. Our future depends on it. If you don’t believe us, ask any fund manager.

P. Gunasegaram can be reached at Question Time, a weekly column, seeks to highlight issues of public importance, stimulate discussion and suggest solutions. Letters can be sent to

source: Into uncertain, uncharted waters
The Sun Daily, Malaysia