Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin recently announced the easing of COVID-19 curbs for fully vaccinated people – those who are two weeks past their last required COVID-19 vaccine dose – even though only 27 percent of Malaysia’s population has been fully vaccinated.
The move, effective from Tuesday, allows for interdistrict travel, religious prayers, individual outdoor sports, and dine-in at restaurants in states that have met federal requirements such as reduced average case numbers and high vaccination rates.
However, most of these states have regressed amid a surge in COVID-19 infections nationwide. Malaysia reported an average of about 19,000 new cases per day over the past week, while the country’s coronavirus death toll hit a record daily high of 360 fatalities on the day of Muhyiddin’s address.
While the exemption of COVID-19 rules may provide relief to thousands of businesses forced to close since June, others worry that the move could lead to a lot of avoidable damage and fuel the spread of the more contagious Delta variant, which is just as transmissible by those who have been vaccinated.
Malaysia’s aggressive vaccination campaign, despite being one of the fastest in the world, hasn’t paid off quite yet. High COVID-19 hospitalization rates continue to clog up public health facilities, which has led to an increase in coronavirus patients brought dead to hospitals.
Government health officials have attributed the current upward trend in COVID-19 cases to the easing of movement restrictions last month and a dominant Delta strain. This suggests that further lifting of coronavirus curbs as case numbers climb is a combustible mix.
So, why is Muhyiddin pushing ahead with this dangerous gamble, especially when his administration has had little success in bringing the pandemic under control?
Muhyiddin’s recent use of executive orders to suspend parliament and silence dissent have reached a level that his opponents view as dictatorial, leaving little room for any benefit of doubt.
Since coming to power in March last year, Muhyiddin has shown time and again that he will do anything to avoid a vote of confidence in parliament.
He has deliberately put motions of confidence filed against him at the back of the parliamentary agenda, declared a state of emergency to shut down the legislature, prevented members of parliament from holding debates, and suspended parliamentary sitting to buy time.
Central to Muhyiddin’s antics is the COVID-19 pandemic.
Under the pretext of quelling COVID-19 risks, Muhyiddin’s unelected government has stretched constitutional bounds by delaying, suspending, shortening, and misleading parliament.
His striking ability to evade attempts to unseat him makes it difficult to simply assume that the 74-year-old leader will take the high road and test his majority in parliament, as he promised last week. As COVID-19 numbers show no signs of abating, the reconvening of parliament – scheduled to resume on September 6 – remains in question.
The virus has killed more than 10,700 people in Malaysia and infected at least 1.26 million, more than three-quarters of which occurred during the months-long emergency. Public discontentment over the government’s COVID-19 policies has since grown.
UMNO, Malaysia’s largest political party, has been unhappy with playing second fiddle to the premier’s party. At least two cabinet ministers have resigned in line with UMNO’s decision to withdraw support for Muhyiddin’s government.
On the flipside, about 31 MPs from the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional alliance have agreed to support Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional (PN) government. The list, however, included at least three UMNO MPs who were present with UMNO president Zahid Hamidi when he announced the party was withdrawing its support for Muhyiddin’s government.
In the summer of 2013, groups of Turkish citizens gathered in Istanbul’s Gezi Park to protest the government’s development plan for the park which included a new mall and luxury apartments.
The plan came at a time when Turkey’s economy was struggling, unemployment was high, the war across the border in Syria was raging, and Turkey’s longtime ruling party, the AKP, was governing with an increasingly heavier hand.
Turkish citizens were seeing a growing authoritarianism in their country: greater restrictions on public behaviour, a clamping down on free expression especially anti-state or anti-religious views, and a growing sense that only a supporter of the ruling party was a good citizen.
It seemed like the kind of restrictions and surveillance historically felt by Turkey’s minorities — especially Kurds — was now pervasive and normalized.
Those protests grew to an estimated 3.5 million people across the country. The state’s response to the Gezi Park protests was swift and brutal. Turkish citizens say Gezi Park felt like a moment of shift.
Strongman meets the rich west
Turkey is hardly the only country facing what experts call “democratic backsliding.”
Looking at a map of the world, it’s clear in the last 30 years the presence, demise, and return of authoritarian governments has contracted and expanded like an accordion.
Despite this decades-long turn, the rise of Donald Trump in the United States came as a shock and signalled that even the longest-standing democracy of modern times was not safe.
The strongman, long associated with the dictators and tyrants of the postcolonial world, had now found his way to the rich west.
Strongman politics are nothing new but its embrace among democracies — new and old — feels confusing and overwhelming. There are similarities among these leaders in the use of a muscular, exclusionary rhetoric, strident nationalism, the invocation of a more glorious but mythical past, and the abandonment of the long-held liberal ideal of equal rights for all.
According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance — International IDEA — authoritarianism is expanding not just in terms of the presence of autocratic government but also in terms of democratic governments engaging in similar repressive tactics including restricting free speech and weakening both the rule of law and democratic institutions.
The institute points out that “over a quarter of the world’s population now live under democratically backsliding governments, including some of the world’s largest democracies, such as Brazil, India and three EU members — Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia. Together with those living in non-democratic regimes, they make up more than two-thirds of the world’s population.”
The world’s largest democracy, India, has seen its relatively stable democratic freedoms decline with the rise of Narendra Modi.
The suspension of historical autonomy and further restrictions on political freedoms in Jammu and Kashmir; the marginalizing of religious minorities — especially Muslims — as Modi’s political rhetoric enfolds a Hindu-first narrative; and the implementation of a national register of citizens which has critics fearing generation-long residents of India will be stripped of their citizenship, are all examples cited by critics as examples of Modi’s shift toward authoritarian governance.
The only way forward for any society to remain free is to treat its citizens equally.– Arfa Khanum Sherwani, broadcaster journalist
Arfa Khanum Sherwani is an Indian broadcast journalist whose work has a human rights focus. She says the current moment in India is both one of joy and fear. Joy because India has just celebrated the 75th anniversary of its independence — something that felt improbable at the outset. But at the same time, Indians are grappling with the question of whether the current state of India is what its “nation builders” envisioned.
“We are going through perhaps an existential crisis for Indian democracy where the biggest threat to Indian democracy is coming from the people who are ruling us.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Cihan Tekay Liu, the Turkey page editor at Jadiliyya.com, a publication focused on the Middle East. She grew up in Turkey during some of its most volatile times in the 80s and 90s but, she says, political and social life improved as Turkey transitioned into a multiparty democracy.
Tekay Liu adds the latest twist in the story began shortly after 2010 when the government “began acting more like a regime.” The ruling AKP under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan began purging members and silencing dissent. These were followed by the jailing of opposition leaders and growing restrictions on the press.
According to Reporters Without Borders, Turkey currently ranks 149th out of 180 countries on its press freedom index, just above India and just below Hong Kong.
Lessons for all nations
Sara Khorshid worked as a journalist in Egypt for more than 15 years and is currently a PhD candidate in history at Western University. She says the hope that came with the so-called Arab Spring in 2011 has long passed and that Egyptians are now repressed in an unprecedented way.
“Under [el-] Sisi, we’ve reached the point where the army is actually the state. It’s not just a state within the state anymore. It exercises control over everything in the country, over the economy, over politics.”
Khorshid says the constraints Egyptians feel are made that much worse given the harsh economic situation. In Egypt, citizens are now less concerned about democratic backsliding than they are about surviving an authoritarian regime.
According to Freedom House, a mostly-U.S. government funded think tank, 2021 was the 16th consecutive year the world saw a decline in political rights and civil liberties. But people in repressive regimes still find a way to resist whether it’s using jokes or social media posts in the absence of a free press as Egyptians do or it’s by spilling into the streets to protest specific laws targeting particular communities as Indians have been doing.
Khanum Sherwani says democratic countries need to pay attention to the human rights conversation in other democratic countries — that the backsliding of one will lead to the backsliding of all.
She adds that despite India being such a diverse nation geographically, linguistically, and religiously, the key reason for its survival has been the reliance on the idea that every citizen was guaranteed certain basic democratic rights. But those rights are no longer guaranteed.
“I think right now that place is threatened. That minimum guarantee is threatened. And that is why I get a sense of insecurity. I feel the only way forward for any society to remain free is to treat its citizens equally.”
She points to the current situation in India is a lesson for all nations.
“Every global citizen is a stakeholder in what happens in the largest democracy of the world. So the world cannot really afford to turn its back towards us and say, ‘look, whatever is happening to you is your internal matter.’
“I do feel when India goes downhill with this whole terrible backsliding of Indian democracy, every global citizen has something to lose.”
Guests in this episode:
Arfa Khanum Sherwani is a broadcaster and editor with The Wire.in
Cihan Tekay Liu is a PhD candidate in anthropology at the Graduate Center at City University of New York. She is also co-editor of the Turkey Page at Jadaliyya.com.
Sara Khorshidis a PhD candidate in history at Western University.
*This episode was produced by Naheed Mustafa. It is part of our series, The New World Disorder.
MONTREAL — Despite his widely denounced comments about immigrants, Quebec Immigration Minister Jean Boulet could keep a seat in cabinet if the Coalition Avenir Québec is re-elected Monday, leader François Legault said Thursday.
Boulet, who is also the province’s labour minister, said last week at a candidates debate that most immigrants to Quebec “don’t work, don’t speak French or don’t adhere to the values of Quebec society.”
While Legault has said that Boulet’s comments disqualify him from remaining immigration minister after the provincial election, he wouldn’t rule out moving Boulet to a different portfolio.
“I spoke to Mr. Boulet yesterday and he’s so sad about what he said,” Legault told reporters in Rouyn-Noranda, Que. “Like I said, he won’t be able to be minister of immigration, but still, the guy is a bright guy and he did a good job for the last four years.”
While Legault described Boulet’s comments as unacceptable, he said Boulet knows what he said isn’t true.
“All the people who know Jean Boulet know that it’s not him, what he said,” Legault said.
Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade said Thursday that Boulet should be immediately removed as a cabinet minister, but she didn’t go as far as Conservative Leader Éric Duhaime, who called for Boulet to withdraw his candidacy altogether.
Anglade said Boulet’s comments are a reflection of the tone set by Legault — who has made controversial comments of his own about immigrants.
“He’s the one creating this environment, he’s the one saying that immigration should be compared to violence, he used the word ‘suicidal’ when he talked about an increase in immigration,” Anglade told reporters in the Montreal suburb of Brossard.
On Wednesday, the CAQ leader said it would be “suicidal” for the Quebec nation to accept more than 50,000 immigrants per year, and previously he has apologized for comments that were seen as linking immigration with violence.
During a campaign stop in St-Marc-des-Carrières, near Quebec City, Duhaime said he doesn’t understand how Legault can describe Boulet as being disqualified while allowing him to continue running in the riding of Trois-Rivières.
“When someone is disqualified, they don’t get to keep running in the race …. Is he trying to say that (Boulet’s) comments are unacceptable for a minister but are acceptable for a CAQ candidate or the member for Trois-Rivières?” he said.
Asked about the comments, federal Justice Minister David Lametti, who represents a Montreal riding, said he is the son of immigrants who came to Canada in search of a better life, worked hard and made sacrifices. “That’s the case of my parents and it’s the case for a large portion of immigrants,” he told reporters in Ottawa.
Bloc Québécois Yves-François Blanchet told reporters in Ottawa he was shocked by Boulet’s comments.
While he has concerns about integrating immigrants into Quebec society — and the large proportion of immigrants who settle in the Montreal region — he said “stigmatization by a clumsy and inaccurate number is a serious error by the minister.”
Meanwhile, the Parti Québécois has raised more money since the beginning of Quebec’s election campaign than any other party.
Élections Québec said the sovereigntist party raised $354,175 from 3,852 donors between the start of the campaign on Aug. 28 and Sept. 21.
Polls in late August put the PQ in fifth place, with support below 10 per cent.
But the PQ is now polling in the mid-teens and is in a statistical tie with the three other main opposition parties — all far behind the incumbent Coalition Avenir Québec.
Québec solidaire was in second place in fundraising since the beginning of the campaign, having raised $180,305, while the CAQ is in third with $170,548 in donations.
The CAQ has collected the most money since the beginning of 2022, however, having raised almost $1.15 million, almost $200,000 more than the PQ.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 29, 2022.
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. When it comes to electoral reform, that ought to be the attitude of both Justin Trudeau’s Liberals and Jagmeet Singh’s NDP. After failing to reach an agreement on the best way to replace Canada’s first-past-the-post system, both sides have since moved on to other priorities. But with Pierre Poilievre’s rise and the ongoing spread of Trumpist politics in Canada, they ought to revisit the issue — and soon.
Replacing Canada’s first-past-the-post system and the artificial majorities it often creates with a more proportional one would pour political cement on the Liberal government’s signature policies, from its carbon tax and climate plan to the child-care agreements it has struck with the provinces. It would protect the new dental care and pharmacare deals that are currently being fleshed out, both popular with most Canadians. And it would prevent Poilievre or other populist leaders from further undermining key Canadian institutions like the Bank of Canada and the CBC.
Why? Because only a government that served the will and interests of a majority of Canadians could reliably command the confidence of Parliament under a more proportional system. That would probably mean the end of majority governments in Canada, but that’s only a bad thing for the partisan staffers and elected officials who work in them. When it comes to better serving voters’ needs, a proportional system and the sometimes messy coalitions they tend to produce seem like a far better option.
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A proportional system would also address the divisiveness and polarization that’s out there right now. Conservatives like to blame the prime minister and his approach to anti-vaccine holdouts for the current political strife, while progressives fault conservatives and the alt-right information ecosystem they’ve built. Either way, it’s clearly a problem standing in the way of level-headed policy and public leadership. While parties once worked across the partisan aisle, the battle lines are now clearly drawn and heavily fortified.
Embracing a more proportional electoral system would fix that. It would foster collaboration and force parties to talk more, fight less and find common ground. It would also encourage more diversity in local representation, whether that’s Liberals and New Democrats getting elected on the Prairies or Conservatives winning seats in Toronto and Montreal.
Electoral reform didn’t happen back in 2016 because the governing Liberals and Opposition New Democrats had different preferred electoral systems in mind and couldn’t bridge that gap. But the imperatives for electoral reform are far stronger today than they were then, and there’s a system out there that can help both sides meet in the middle: single transferable vote, or STV.
This system was proposed by British Columbia’s Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform in October 2004 and earned the support of 57.7 per cent of voters in a 2005 referendum (the threshold for victory was set at 60 per cent). Its greatest weakness (other than its name sounding perilously close to STD) is its complexity, which delighted political science professors and pundits but frustrated and confused the general public. Under an STV system, multiple representatives are elected in expanded constituencies, with voters asked to rank them as they see fit.
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As the final report from the Citizens’ Assembly noted, “because each district is likely to elect members from different parties in proportion to the votes cast, voters may well be able to go to an MLA who shares their political views. This will help provide more effective local representation.”
Better still, the very nature of the system forces candidates to be more collegial and less combative. “Recognizing that they may not be ‘first preference’ on enough ballots to win a seat, candidates will need to encourage supporters of other candidates to mark them as their second or third preference,” the Citizens’ Assembly’s report said. “This need to appeal to a greater number of voters should lower the adversarial tone of election contests: voters are unlikely to respond positively to someone who aggressively insults their first choice.”
By combining the best aspects of a proportional system (the NDP’s stated preference) with a ranked ballot (the preferred option for Liberals), STV should serve as an acceptable compromise for both sides. Yes, Conservatives would surely howl about the unfairness of it all, but given they already use a ranked ballot for their own leadership race, that would be a tough political sale for them to make. They might also benefit from the change, given they won the popular vote in the last two elections but finished well behind in seats due to the efficiency of the Liberal vote. And when they’ve been loudly complaining about polarization and divisiveness, how could they reasonably object to an electoral system that reduces both?
With the rise of Pierre Poilievre and ongoing spread of Trumpist politics in Canada, Justin Trudeau and Jagmeet Singh ought to revisit proportional representation, writes columnist @maxfawcett. #cdnpoli #ElectoralReform
It’s not like they’re above tilting the political table in their own direction, either. Doug Ford’s government invoked the notwithstanding clause to override a court decision that struck down parts of his government’s bill limiting third-party election advertising, while Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party in Alberta passed legislation last December that seemed designed to help him survive his leadership challenge and smooth the road to re-election in 2023.
The supply-and-confidence agreement between the Liberals and NDP has already produced some modest victories, including the recently announced dental care plan. But if Trudeau and Singh want to deliver a truly lasting win for Canadians, they should revisit their positions on electoral reform and find a way to deliver on the promises made in the 2015 election campaign. There is still time to heal our politics and create a system that rewards our better angels rather than empowering our worst.
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