What comes after Dubai Move?

DEPUTY Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi’s proposal for a special bill to prevent the government from being overthrown in the middle of a parliament term reminds me of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA) of the United Kingdom (UK).

An act of parliament can be essentially political. The FTPA is a good example.

Following the 2010 general election, in which the Conservative Party emerged as the largest single party with 306 seats in a 650-seat House of Commons but lacking an overall majority, the balance of power was held by the Liberal Democrat party, which had won 57 seats. Labour, the party in government, won 258 seats.

Conservatives leader David Cameron offered to enter into negotiations with the Liberal Democrats for the formation of a coalition government. The Liberal Democrats had negotiated with both the Conservatives and Labour, but agreed a deal with the Conservatives to form a coalition government. The UK had previously had elections in which no one party had achieved an overall majority, and therefore had had some experience of coalition governments.

However, it had no experience of a coalition government being formed as a consequence of what had been described as the electoral arithmetic of a general election. (See Philip Norton, “The Politics of Coalition” in Nicholas Allen and John Bartle (eds), Britain at the Polls 2010 (Sage, 2011) 242)

The coming together of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats “in order to deliver a minimum winning coalition” was said to be unprecedented. The UK usually sees a new government being formed within 24 hours after the outcome of a general election is known. When a new government is formed, the civil service briefs incoming ministers, and government continues in an almost seamless manner. (See Philip Norton, “From Flexible to Semi-Fixed: The Fixed-Term Parliaments Act” (2014) 2 JICL 203)

The Conservative and Liberal Democrat negotiators took five days to agree to an interim “Conservative-Lib Dem deal”. The agreement included a section on political reform, with the first item being a commitment to establishing five-year fixed-term parliaments. It read as follows:

“We will establish five-year fixed-term parliaments. We will put a binding motion before the House of Commons stating that the next general election will be held on the first Thursday of May 2015. Following this motion, we will legislate to make provision for fixed-term parliaments of five years. This legislation will also provide for dissolution if 55% or more of the House vote in favour”.

The commitment led to the coalition government introducing a Fixed-term Parliaments Bill. Despite considerable criticism and intra-party dissent in both the lower House of Commons (11 Conservative MPs voted against it on its second reading) and the upper House of Lords (considerable pressure to amend the bill’s provisions), the bill went through its passage and became law.

There were only seven sections in the FTPA, but Lord Norton, who has been described as the UK’s greatest living expert on Parliament, described the legislation as a “major constitutional measure” of the UK. He wrote in 2014:

“It removes a major prerogative power. The UK now has semi-fixed-term parliaments. The Prime Minister can no longer determine when a general election will take place…. The principal effect of the (FTPA) is to provide a degree of certainty as to the date of general elections that was previously lacking.”

The FTPA provided for a strict timetable for general elections. The next general election, it stipulated, was to be held on May 7, 2015, and each subsequent election was to take place five years after the last, on the first Thursday in May. The prerogative power enjoyed by previous prime ministers to call a general election at any point within the lifetime of a Parliament, subject only to the monarch’s approval – which was very unlikely to be withheld – was accordingly removed.

The prerogative power had been used by successive prime ministers to hold elections at times they thought were most propitious for them and their parties. Where conditions looked good for their party, many prime ministers opted to go to the electorates early. But when their party seemed to be in trouble, they held on longer in the hope that something might turn up to improve their lot. (See “Repealing the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act”, LSE 2020).

Despite criticism, the FTPA did achieve its immediate aim and political purpose. The 2010-2015 UK Parliament lasted its maximum term – the first in the UK’s modern history. So did the coalition government that was formed at the beginning of it.

The FTPA has since been repealed in 2022 following the statutory review under section 7(4)(a) which mandated the prime minister to make arrangements for a committee to carry out a review of the operation of the legislation and, if appropriate in consequence of its findings, to make recommendations for the repeal or amendment of the legislation.

Based on the above, Zahid’s proposal to ensure a government remains in power for its full five-year term is not out of the ordinary.

In 2010, Conservative leader Cameron was willing to go along with the commitment to fixed-term Parliaments because the stability of a five-year government was what the markets wanted. (See Matthew D’Ancona, In It Together: The Inside Story of the Coalition Government [Viking, 2013] 16)

Political leaders in the country too have said that the proposal will ensure stability and boost the economic development as well as the wellbeing of the people.

Political instability is harmful to economic growth.

If Putrajaya is moved by the proposal – by the look of it, it is – one could call it the “Putrajaya Move”.

So, what’s next after the “Dubai Move”? Your guess is as good as mine. – January 2, 2024.

* Hafiz Hassan reads The Malaysian Insight.

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