Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Abdullah's Resignation: Pakatan's Ploy for Power?

Written by johnleemk on 4:36:26 pm Sep 17, 2008.

September 16 has come and gone, with no change in government. While I will leave an analysis of the implications of this for another time, the mechanism by which Pakatan Rakyat would take power is worth examining. After all, September 16 falls smack in the middle of Parliament's recess, which will last for about two weeks more; how can the government fall when Parliament cannot meet to pass a vote of no-confidence? Most speculation here suggests that Pakatan leaders would meet with the Yang di-Pertuan Agong submitting the names of MPs supporting the new government. But I think a very plausible, if not likely scenario is the Prime Minister simply tendering his resignation.

After all, most analyses assume a hostile takeover. But the last thing Pakatan wants is instability and resistance from the politicised institutions of our country. To form a new government, Pakatan would want more than just the support of a slim majority of MPs; it would require some sort of acquiescence from at least a few of the elite in the current government. If the present government does not acquiesce, if it fights tooth and nail to hold on to power, it will jail MPs indiscriminately, do anything it can to prevent a vote of no-confidence in Parliament; it will commence a scorched-earth campaign to ensure Pakatan can get nothing of value when it takes power, while salting away its own ill-gotten gains in offshore bank accounts.

So ultimately at the very least we must have a Prime Minister willing to let go of power, and willing to step down. And if we are willing to accept that Abdullah Badawi will let himself be voted out of power, why not go one step further? I think there are grounds to believe that he may simply resign before things get to that stage.

If Anwar Ibrahim, the Leader of the Opposition, can broker a deal with Abdullah to ensure a smooth and orderly transition of power, both men will benefit immensely. Thus far it seems clear that history will not judge Abdullah very well; at best, his attempts to reform the government were stillborn and half-hearted. But if Abdullah becomes the first Prime Minister to make way for a real change in government, if he places institutions above politics and personal gain, his reputation will be significantly rehabilitated.

You may say that this is not much, but look at it another way: he is definitely going out as Prime Minister, with no concrete accomplishments to his name. It is unlikely that he will last until 2010, with so many within his own party baying for blood. Whoever succeeds him as Prime Minister is unlikely to lavish him with praise or mark his administration with pride; Abdullah's term as premier will at best be seen as a benchwarmer for his successor, and at worst, be seen as setting Malaysia down a dangerous and poorly-planned path. Considering the relative vehemence of calls for him to step down, it is probable that his leadership would be vilified by the government-authored history books; Abdullah would be lucky if his term was just ignored and forgotten.

On the other hand, if Anwar takes power, Anwar does not have much to gain from going after Abdullah. He will be too busy fixing broken institutions and dealing with the day-to-day problems of governance to make Abdullah-hating a priority; it would be especially unseemly for him to denounce the man who so generously made way for him to accede to the premiership. Accusations of corruption and impropriety on Abdullah's part aside, the fact is, Abdullah is hardly criminally responsible for our nation's problems today; even if the new Pakatan government tried to hunt him down, it would not solve any fundamental problem. If anything, Pakatan will probably see to it that Abdullah goes down in the history books as a visionary Prime Minister who presided over the rebirth of democracy in Malaysia, and whose attempts to reform our institutions were blocked by shortsighted bigots in his own political party.

You may think this kind of historical rewriting is unlikely or unseemly, but it has already happened: the case of Dato Onn Ja'afar comes to mind. Dato Onn today is seen by everyone — including the government historians — as a man ahead of his time in trying to found a multiracial party. What we don't remember is his bitter return to racism after his own party failed; some historians actually blame his rhetoric for spurring UMNO to outdo him in fighting for ketuanan Melayu.

The raw material for Abdullah's reimaging as a visionary ahead of his time, blocked by dunderheads in his own party, is already there: his attempts to reform our institutions, his redefinition of ketuanan Melayu into a positive ideology empowering the Malays to stand on their own two feet as equal partners with other Malaysians. Abdullah can easily go down in history as one of our best Prime Ministers, given the right spin. The only thing is, he has zero chance of this happening if an UMNO man succeeds him, while it is very likely he will eventually be hailed as a great patriot if he makes way for a Pakatan leader.

For Anwar, Abdullah stepping down solves a lot of key headaches. For one, there is no need to go through the vote of no-confidence; the Agong has complete discretion in appointing the Prime Minister if the post falls vacant (one of the very few real discretionary powers the Agong has). Anwar can meet with the Agong and submit a list of MPs who have agreed to support him, and once the Agong actually appoints him as PM, it is very unlikely that MPs would be falling over themselves to pass a vote of no-confidence against the Pakatan government.

The matter is smoothed over even more if Abdullah states that he has made way for Anwar, and that Pakatan has enough MPs on its side to make things work. With that statement, the Agong appointing Anwar would be a simple enough formality. There's not even a need for Parliament to meet, and if the handover occurs this month, the Parliamentary recess gives Anwar breathing room to form a Cabinet and start governing, building momentum on his side and further forestalling any Barisan move to topple him. It's a huge logistical win for Anwar if he can accomplish it.

Moreover, Anwar and Abdullah will have ammunition at the ready to face down their opponents from UMNO. I quit because you wanted me to, Abdullah can say. It's clear I didn't have your confidence, as you can see from the defection of your colleagues and your own voracious calls for me to step down. And the King himself appointed me, Anwar will say. Do you really want to question the King's decision? Spinning themselves out of this situation will be fairly straightforward, I believe, especially with public opinion on Pakatan's side.

So is it any wonder that Pakatan's agenda at the moment is to meet first with the Prime Minister, before seeking an audience with the Agong? I would not be surprised at all if a deal like this winds up being cut eventually. It benefits both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition; it benefits the country by bequeathing it some stability and smoothness in the transition; everyone comes out smelling like roses.

Ultimately it is not to Pakatan's benefit to form a government speedily but haphazardly. A Pakatan legislator I met three weeks ago told me that they were then sorting out a smooth transition with institutions such as the Police and military. The excuse of stability they presently cite may seem weak but I believe it holds water.

History hinges on Abdullah's decision: to quit or not to quit? His position is growing increasingly untenable. It's a question of when, not if, he will step down as a lame-duck Prime Minister. But one successor offers the real potential of fixing the country and its government, and the temptation of going down in history as a great Prime Minister ahead of his time. The other successor offers more of the same under a different name, and the probable vilification of Abdullah's name in the history books. I think Abdullah would be a fool not to make way for Anwar, if Anwar has any Barisan MPs at all on his side — and that I think he does.

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