Debrief: Confidence and supply agreement in Malaysian politics

Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob leads a fragile alliance of 114 MPs in the 222-seat Parliament. PHOTO: AFP/MALAYSIA'S DEPARTMENT OF INFORMATION

KUALA LUMPUR - For the first time in its history, Malaysia's major political parties are discussing a confidence and supply agreement (CSA) in which the opposition lends its support to the government in return for sought-after reforms.

If a deal is struck between Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who leads with a slim majority in Parliament, and main opposition bloc Pakatan Harapan (PH), it will represent a rare bipartisan truce in Malaysia's fractured political landscape.

What is a CSA

CSAs are normally struck following elections in which no single party or coalition has won enough seats to form a majority government.

The party or grouping with the most number of lawmakers will therefore need backing from other independent or opposition parties to survive confidence votes and form a minority government, or pass expenditure Bills, commonly referred to as supply Bills.

Although common in several Westminster democracies, CSAs are rare in South-east Asia. The Republic of Ireland and United Kingdom both saw minority governments being formed through CSAs in 2016 and 2017 respectively. Such agreements are also common in New Zealand and Canada.

In Malaysia, the idea cropped up in August, when embattled former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, facing a loss of majority support, offered certain institutional reforms to the opposition in return for its backing. The overture failed, but Tan Sri Muhyiddin's successor, Datuk Seri Ismail has revived negotiations as he, too, leads with a slim four-seat majority in Parliament.

Why does it matter

Cooperation across the aisle could benefit both sides.

Mr Ismail leads a fragile alliance of 114 MPs in the 222-seat Parliament, with two seats currently lying vacant. Backing from PH's 88 lawmakers in a confidence vote would entrench his position and help insulate his administration from the defections and threats that led to the collapse of the previous two governments.

A more stable government could also refocus efforts on tackling the Covid-19 pandemic, which continues to strain healthcare resources despite a ramped-up vaccination programme.

Meanwhile PH, which promised reforms during its successful campaign in the 2018 election but did not manage to push them through Parliament during its short-lived administration, could finally get its way.

Among the reforms being discussed are a 10-year limit for the post of prime minister, laws to curb party defections and strengthening the role of Parliament.

What's next

Prospects for the deal being sealed brightened on Friday (Sept 10) when Mr Ismail announced that his government was proposing several key reforms to "create a new political landscape".

These included providing the leader of the opposition a salary and facilities accorded to a government minister, and implementing plans to lower the voting age from 21 to 18.

PH also said in a statement on Saturday that it was leaning towards inking a memorandum of understanding with the government over the reforms after a meeting with several key members of Mr Ismail's administration on Friday.

The PH presidential council, in a statement, said that the understanding is in order to revive the welfare of Malaysians amidst the Covid-19 crisis, though the opposition bloc said that the agreement draft still needs to be improved before it is finalised.

The parties could come to an agreement ahead of a parliamentary sitting on Monday (Sept 13), sources say.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.