(Bloomberg) — After decades in the background of Malaysia’s national politics, the monarchy has moved to center stage to fill a power vacuum this year.
King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad, who ascended the throne last year, stepped into the political fray back in February when a two-year-old government abruptly collapsed. He resolved the impasse by tapping Muhyiddin Yassin to become the next prime minister without a parliamentary vote. Since then Muhyiddin’s majority has regularly been questioned, and the country’s top politicians have sought meetings with the king while vying for power.
For Malaysia, where one coalition ruled for six straight decades until the 2018 election, it’s relatively new for the monarch to play such a prominent role in politics. The nine members of the Conference of Rulers, who rotate power among themselves, have since the country’s independence from British rule mainly performed ceremonial functions like swearing in ministers or pardoning criminal convicts.
But now, with Muhyiddin’s government holding at best a two-vote majority in parliament, the king’s decisions have become crucial in determining whether his administration stays or goes. The monarch has the constitutional power to appoint a prime minister or deny a request to dissolve parliament for an election, which in normal times merely confirms the outcome of a vote or the sitting government’s recommendation.
The lack of a clear mandate for the current prime minister now gives the king more weight, including when he makes statements on policy matters like the budget or the right coronavirus response.
“We have now a royalty becoming more prominent, more assertive in politics,” said Johan Saravanamuttu, an adjunct senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies who has written about Malaysian politics for more than 30 years. “It’s actually making important decisions with respect to politics.”
The king’s influence will be tested in the next few weeks. He’s expressed “full confidence” in Muhyiddin’s ability to lead the country through the crisis and urged lawmakers to vote for the budget his government presents on Nov. 6. If it doesn’t go through, pressure will increase for the prime minister to resign or call an election — adding more risks for investors already concerned about a surge in coronavirus cases.
The monarch “called on the members of the House of Representatives to respect His Majesty’s advice for them to immediately stop all political disputes and instead prioritize the welfare of the people and the well-being of the country so that the 2021 Budget is approved without any interference,” the palace said in an Oct. 28 statement.
The palace didn’t respond to emailed questions on the role of the monarchy in Malaysia prior to publication.
Malaysia’s rotational monarchy is composed of the rulers of nine Malay states. The position of the king is passed among the rulers, with each term lasting five years.
After the country’s independence in 1957, the sultans and the ruling coalition led by the United Malays National Organisation for the most part enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship.
That changed with Mahathir Mohamad’s rise to the premiership in the 1980s. He sought to curtail the monarchy’s influence by ending federal veto powers, removing their legal immunity and scrapping laws barring people from criticizing the king. He also attempted to transfer emergency powers to the executive branch of government.
After Mahathir’s 22-year stint in power ended in 2003, the sultans have “found ways to come back into the limelight,” said Greg Lopez, a lecturer at Murdoch University Executive Education Center in Perth.
“They are a power center, so the politicians know that it’s a mistake to give them power because then they hold you in check,” he said. “So weak politicians, weak leaders go to them.”
Muhyiddin’s government is perhaps the most unstable in Malaysia’s history. The king’s increased prominence was evident during a speech at parliament’s first sitting in May, when he called for unity and urged lawmakers to “display maturity in politics.” It was the first time in the country’s history that a one-day session hosted only the king’s speech, leaving no time for representatives to discuss policies or address the pandemic.
Last month, the king rebuffed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s claims to have “convincing” evidence of a parliamentary majority. He said Anwar didn’t submit lawmakers’ names to back up his claim, and urged the country to unite.
Less than two weeks later, the king also rejected Muhyiddin’s request to declare a state of emergency to tackle the pandemic, which would’ve allowed the prime minister to pass the budget without a vote. That move generated calls for Muhyiddin to resign even from within his own coalition.
Many in Malaysia are welcoming the enhanced role for the king, seeing him as a voice of reason during a time of political instability, economic distress and pandemic-related anxiety. When the king stopped emergency rule, “#daulattuanku” — which roughly means long live the king — was trending on Twitter.
Regardless of their changing political clout through the centuries, Malaysian royalty command fierce loyalty from the ethnic-Malay majority. Similar to Thailand, where protesters are breaking taboos to publicly challenge the royal family, criticizing the Malaysian rulers carries legal risks.
The Edge newspaper reported last month that police arrested a local opposition politician for seditious comments about the monarchy posted on Facebook.
The monarch’s actions this year have been “unprecedented,” said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. “The monarchy assumes a much more constitutionally enhanced position.”
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.
Green Party in turmoil, leader resists calls to step down
Canada‘s Green Party was increasingly mired in an internal dispute over its position on Israel on Tuesday, and a news report said the bloc would hold a vote next month on whether to oust its leader, Annamie Paul, who was elected just eight months ago.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corp (CBC) reported that the Greens had triggered a process that could remove Paul, the first black person to head a mainstream Canadian party, beginning with a vote next month.
A Green Party spokesperson declined to comment on the report, but said the party’s “federal council” would meet later on Tuesday. Earlier in the day, Paul, 48, rejected calls from the Quebec wing of the party for her to resign after a member of parliament left the Greens due to the Israel controversy.
“I believe that I have been given a strong mandate. I believe that I have been given the instructions to work on behalf of Canadians for a green recovery,” Paul said at a news conference in Ottawa.
Paul herself is not a member of parliament. The Greens – who champion the environment and the fight against climate change – had only three legislators in the 338-seat House of Commons and one, Jenica Atwin, abandoned the party last week to join the governing Liberals.
Atwin has said that her exit was in large part due to a dispute over the party’s stance on Israel. Atwin on Twitter has criticized Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, while a senior adviser to Paul, Noah Zatzman, has posted on Facebook that some unspecified Green members of parliament are anti-Semitic.
The party’s executive committee voted last week not to renew Zatzman’s contract, local media reported. Paul converted to Judaism some two decades ago after she married a Jewish man.
While the Greens are the smallest faction in parliament, they perform well in British Colombia and hold two seats there. The current turmoil may favor their rivals ahead of a national election that senior Liberals say could be just a few months away.
The Greens would win about 6.7% of the vote nationally if a vote were held now, according to an average of recent polls aggregated by the CBC.
(Reporting by Steve Scherer and Julie Gordon; editing by Jonathan Oatis)
Hope, anger and defiance greet birth of Israel’s new government
Following are reactions to the new government in Israel, led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, FORMER ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER
“We’ll be back, soon.”
JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES
“On behalf of the American people, I congratulate Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Alternate Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, and all the members of the new Israeli cabinet. I look forward to working with Prime Minister Bennett to strengthen all aspects of the close and enduring relationship between our two nations.”
NABIL ABU RUDEINEH, SPOKESMAN FOR PALESTINIAN PRESIDENT MAHMOUD ABBAS
“This is an internal Israeli affair. Our position has always been clear, what we want is a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders with Jerusalem as its capital.”
BORIS JOHNSON, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER VIA TWITTER
“On behalf of the UK, I offer my congratulations to
@naftalibennett and @yairlapid on forming a new government in Israel. As we emerge from COVID-19, this is an exciting time for the UK and Israel to continue working together to advance peace and prosperity for all.”
TOR WENNESLAND, U.N. MIDDLE EAST PEACE ENVOY VIA TWITTER
“I look forward to working with the Government to advance the ultimate goal of a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”
CHARLES MICHEL, EUROPEAN COUNCIL PRESIDENT VIA TWITTER
“Congratulations to Prime Minister @naftalibennett and to Alternate PM & MFA @yairlapid for the swearing in of the new Israeli government. Looking forward to strengthen the partnership for common prosperity and towards lasting regional peace & stability.”
FAWZI BARHOUM, HAMAS SPOKESMAN
“Regardless of the shape of the government in Israel, it will not alter the way we look at the Zionist entity. It is an occupation and a colonial entity, which we should resist by force to get our rights back.”
BENNY GANTZ, ISRAELI DEFENCE MINISTER
“With all due respect, Israel is not a widower. Israel’s security was never dependent on one man. And it will never be dependent on one man.”
CHUCK SCHUMER, U.S. SENATE MAJORITY LEADER
“So, there’s a new Administration in Israel. And we are hopeful that we can now begin serious negotiations for a two-state solution. I am urging the Biden Administration to do all it can to bring the parties together and help achieve a two-state solution where each side can live side by side in peace.”
JUSTIN TRUDEAU, PRIME MINISTER OF CANADA
“Congratulations on the formation of a new Israeli government, Prime Minister @NaftaliBennett and Alternate Prime Minister @YairLapid. Together, let’s explore ways to further strengthen the relationship between Canada and Israel.”
MANSOUR ABBAS, ARAB MEMBER OF NEW ISRAELI GOVERNMENT
“We are aware that this step has a lot of risks and hardships that we cannot deny, but the opportunity for us is also big: to change the equation and the balance of power in the Knesset and in the upcoming government.”
DAPHNA KILION, ISRAELI IN JERUSALEM
“I think it’s very exciting for Israel to have a new beginning and I’m hopeful that the new government will take them in the right direction.”
EREZ GOLDMAN, ISRAELI IN JERUSALEM
“It’s a sad day today, it’s not a legitimate government. It’s pretty sad that almost 86 (out of 120 seats) in the parliament, the Knesset, belong to the right-wing and they sold their soul and ideology and their beliefs to the extreme left-wing just for one purpose – hatred of Netanyahu and to become a prime minister.”
SEBASTIAN KURZ, CHANCELLOR OF AUSTRIA, VIA TWITTER
“Congratulations to PM @naftalibennett and alternate PM @yairlapid for forming a government. I look forward to working with you. Austria is committed to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and will continue to stand by Israel’s side.”
(Reporting by Stephen Farrell; Editing by Andrew Heavens, Daniel Wallis and Lisa Shumaker)
Boris Johnson hails Biden as ‘a big breath of fresh air’
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hailed U.S. President Joe Biden on Thursday as “a big breath of fresh air”, and praised his determination to work with allies on important global issues ranging from climate change and COVID-19 to security.
Johnson did not draw an explicit parallel between Biden and his predecessor Donald Trump after talks with the Democratic president in the English seaside resort of Carbis Bay on the eve of a summit of the Group of Seven (G7) advanced economies.
But his comments made clear Biden had taken a much more multilateral approach to talks than Trump, whose vision of the world at times shocked, angered and bewildered many of Washington’s European allies.
“It’s a big breath of fresh air,” Johnson said of a meeting that lasted about an hour and 20 minutes.
“It was a long, long, good session. We covered a huge range of subjects,” he said. “It’s new, it’s interesting and we’re working very hard together.”
The two leaders appeared relaxed as they admired the view across the Atlantic alongside their wives, with Jill Biden wearing a jacket embroidered with the word “LOVE”.
“It’s a beautiful beginning,” she said.
Though Johnson said the talks were “great”, Biden brought grave concerns about a row between Britain and the European Union which he said could threaten peace in the British region of Northern Ireland, which following Britain’s departure from the EU is on the United Kingdom’s frontier with the bloc as it borders EU member state Ireland.
The two leaders did not have a joint briefing after the meeting: Johnson spoke to British media while Biden made a speech about a U.S. plan to donate half a billion vaccines to poorer countries.
Biden, who is proud of his Irish heritage, was keen to prevent difficult negotiations between Brussels and London undermining a 1998 U.S.-brokered peace deal known as the Good Friday Agreement that ended three decades of bloodshed in Northern Ireland.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters aboard Air Force One on the way to Britain that Biden had a “rock-solid belief” in the peace deal and that any steps that imperilled the accord would not be welcomed.
Yael Lempert, the top U.S. diplomat in Britain, issued London with a demarche – a formal diplomatic reprimand – for “inflaming” tensions, the Times newspaper reported.
Johnson sought to play down the differences with Washington.
“There’s complete harmony on the need to keep going, find solutions, and make sure we uphold the Belfast Good Friday Agreement,” said Johnson, one of the leaders of the 2016 campaign to leave the EU.
Asked if Biden had made his alarm about the situation in Northern Ireland very clear, he said: “No he didn’t.
“America, the United States, Washington, the UK, plus the European Union have one thing we absolutely all want to do,” Johnson said. “And that is to uphold the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, and make sure we keep the balance of the peace process going. That is absolutely common ground.”
The 1998 peace deal largely brought an end to the “Troubles” – three decades of conflict between Irish Catholic nationalist militants and pro-British Protestant “loyalist” paramilitaries in which 3,600 people were killed.
Britain’s exit from the EU has strained the peace in Northern Ireland. The 27-nation bloc wants to protect its markets but a border in the Irish Sea cuts off the British province from the rest of the United Kingdom.
Although Britain formally left the EU in 2020, the two sides are still trading threats over the Brexit deal after London unilaterally delayed the implementation of the Northern Irish clauses of the deal.
Johnson’s Downing Street office said he and Biden agreed that both Britain and the EU “had a responsibility to work together and to find pragmatic solutions to allow unencumbered trade” between Northern Ireland, Britain and Ireland.”
(Reporting by Steve Holland, Andrea Shalal, Padraic Halpin, John Chalmers; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Giles Elgood, Emelia Sithole-Matarise, Mark Potter and Timothy Heritage)
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