Twists and turns of coalition politics in Timor-Leste and Malaysia

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Government House, Dili - Photo courtesy of easttimorlegal.blogspot.com

There are uncanny similarities in recent political developments in both these nations, observes Khoo Ying Hooi.

On 24 February, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the seventh prime minister of Malaysia resigned unexpectedly, followed by a week-long political fiasco in the form of ‘betrayals’ with lawmakers jumping ship from one to another.

Mahathir’s resignation led to the downfall of the short-lived political coalition Alliance of Hope or Pakatan Harapan (PH), the then-opposition coalition that took over the administration for the first time in Malaysian electoral history on 9 May 2018.

Amidst the turmoil, for the first time, the king consulted all 222 lawmakers in search of a candidate for prime minister. Muhyiddin Yassin was unexpectedly appointed as the eighth prime minister on 1 March after one week of political struggle ended with his party Bersatu, joining forces with Umno, Pas and a PKR faction to form a new coalition, under the name of Perikatan Nasional (PN), supported by Gabungan Bersatu Sabah (GBS) and Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS).

Critics of PN have branded the coalition a “backdoor government” as it was formed without an election. This formally led to the collapse of the 22-month-old PH coalition, which had won 121 out of 222 seats.

On 25 February, the Prime Minister of Timor-Leste, Taur Matan Ruak sent a letter of resignation dated 24 February to the president, Francisco “Lu-Olo” Guterres from the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin), as the small South East Asian country with 1.3 million population continues to face political instability after the collapse of the Alliance of Change for Progress (AMP) coalition.

The collapse took place as Ruak had repeatedly failed to secure passage of a budget for 2020 after the largest party in his coalition, the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT), the party of independence hero Xanana Gusmao, withdrew support.

Ruak had been backed by a three-party AMP coalition, comprising the People’s Liberation Party, the CNRT and Kmanek Haburas Unidade Nasional Timor Oan (Khunto), which won 35 out of the 65 seats in the parliamentary election that was held on 12 May 2018.

There had been occasional political deadlock and growing tension after the president rejected some ministers proposed by Gusmao over accusations of graft.

At the time of writing, Gusmao, Timor-Leste’s first president and a former prime minister, announced a new six-party coalition controlling 34 seats without Ruak’s PLP that he said would prepare to form a new alternative coalition government. As he told the reporters, “It is set up to resolve the current political deadlock.”

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The six parties consist of CNRT (21 seats), Khunto (five seats), Democratic Party (five seats), and three smaller parties – the United Party for Development and Democracy, Frente Mudanca and the Timorese Democratic Union.

Both Malaysia and Timor-Leste experienced the collapse of the pre-electoral coalition agreement that they had formed prior to the election.

Interestingly, both coalitions, the PH and AMP are to some extent new as it involved different actors and political parties that worked together for the first time to face the election.

By coincidence, both countries held their election almost the same time in May 2018 (Malaysia on 9 May and Timor-Leste on 12 May but in the case of Timor-Leste, it was an early election as the previous minority government that was formed did not get enough support from the parliament).

Both prime ministers also resigned almost at the same time in February 2020 (Mahathir on 24 February and Ruak on 25 February though at the time of writing, the resignation had not been accepted by the president in the case of Ruak).

Both happened at a time when PH was seen as a new hope in Malaysia and it was then popularly termed as “New Malaysia”. As for the AMP, it was seen as a fresh break from Fretilin and CNRT’s domination by having the PLP and Khunto.

While these coincidences are not directly linked, as a close observer to the both countries’ politics, I find it interesting to observe the political development of both Malaysia and Timor-Leste when it comes to why both the PH and AMP pre-electoral coalitions failed to sustain.

Before moving into exploring some preliminary observation on why these two political coalitions were short-lived, questions arise. Why do political parties form coalitions?

Around the world, it is common for political parties to form pre-electoral coalitions or post-electoral coalitions for various reasons, ranging from ensuring political stability by merging the different political ideologies, ie the parties’ policy preferences, the desire to get into office, to improve electoral prospects, to form a majority government, to usher countries during crisis and many more.

In some cases, political parties that wish to exercise executive power are typically ‘forced’ to enter some form of coalition. Parties can either form a pre-electoral coalition or they can compete independently and form a post-electoral coalition afterwards.

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The literature on pre-electoral coalitions, however, is rather limited. Pre-electoral coalitions are more likely to form between ideologically compatible parties. They are also more likely to form when the expected coalition size is large (but not too large) and the potential coalition partners are similar in size. Finally, they are more likely to form if the party system is ideologically polarised and the electoral rules are disproportional.

Coalition formation is often modelled as a cooperative game. Each party enters the game endowed with a proportion of votes that it obtained in the election, and a preferred policy position.

The reasons for both Malaysia and Timor-Leste political parties to form pre-electoral coalitions are not exactly the same; their reasons are varied but they share a commonality in that all political actors care to some extent about getting to office and obtaining votes by working out their incompatibility across parties.

However, no matter how leader-oriented each individual party may be, they are marked by internal competition, suggesting the space for new contested political patterns to emerge.

Traditionally, Timor-Leste does not have a great history of electoral alliances, and it mostly happen with small parties with the hope of attaining some power. Arguably, the AMP was the first ‘strong’ electoral coalition that was formed.

In Malaysia, the coalition party system is a significant feature in the Malaysian electoral politics. More specifically, in the context of Malaysia, it is commonly in the form of a two-coalition party system. Political elites from different racial backgrounds play an important role in deciding the formation of coalitions.

The inter-ethnic accommodation formula has been the defining and dominating feature of Malaysian politics since independence in 1957, with the Barisan Nasional (BN) as the longest-standing coalition. But the latest PN formed during the recent political crisis is made up of predominantly Malay-based parties.

Looking into recent incidents in Malaysia and Timor-Leste, here is my preliminary analysis. It is not exactly a comparison study; this writing serves as a preliminary observation of what is taking place in these two countries. There are various explanations for these two political crises.

One certain explanation is the strong feature of personalities that fundamentally shape Malaysian and Timor-Leste political contestation. For instance, in Malaysia, there is a struggle among political figures such as Mahathir and Anwar Ibrahim, the former deputy prime minister and supposedly tipped to take over as the eighth prime minister. Malaysian politics suffered from the entrenched system of patronage over the decades amidst these key political elites dominating the political scene.

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In Timor-Leste, we continue to see the significant role of strong political figures that were previously revolutionary leaders such as Gusmao, Ruak, Jose Ramos Horta, Lu Olo and Mari Alkatiri. The split in strong personalities in Timor-Leste puts the country in stake.

The short-lived PH and AMP coalitions somehow shows that the prolonged debate of both countries’ leadership is still largely personality-driven, as it continues to be dominated by high-profile political elites.

The ambiguous nature of the agreement, which can be described as a “marriage of convenience”, provided an opportunity of contention for the public, who are still suspicious about the warming relations of these two bitter enemies.

In what was intended to be a power-sharing agreement, both the PH and AMP coalitions faced a challenge in sustaining their coalitions. As the parties governed, they continued to face issues of dividing views. The political impasse reveals little room for compromise within the coalitions in Malaysia and Timor-Leste.

At the same time, the current political deadlock also brings us to another discourse of when the door will be opened for the younger generation to lead. But this is a complex issue that also has to do with an embedded strong political culture that is led by the political elites and veteran politicians.

Equally interesting is that despite the political crisis, generally Timorese and Malaysian society have remained largely calm and accepted the decision from the government of a new coalition (at the time of writing, the new six-party coalition led by Gusmao has not yet been confirmed to lead the new government) despite obvious frustrations.

This could possibly be coupled with cautiousness as the current crisis could revive memories of the 2006 crisis in Timor-Leste and the 1969 racial conflict in Malaysia, which possibly leading to a fear of political and social instability.

For now, the real immediate test for these two countries whose politics is in transition is how they can elevate their economies to another level during this challenging period.

The stakes for both major coalitions in Malaysia and Timor-Leste (at the time of writing, the new six-party coalition in Timor-Leste has not yet been formally confirmed as the next government – assuming it is installed by the president, the alliance will become the country’s ninth government since the restoration of independence in May 2002) are high, having promised political stability at whatever costs to the people, as there is apparently political fatigue among the people in these two countries.

As established parties increasingly steer clear of the risk of future electoral losses, ultimately, what we really need to avoid are the populist-oriented parties that are offered a chance to join coalitions.

References

Source: Heinrich Böll Foundation, Southeast Asia regional office.

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