Debrief - Confidence and supply agreements

Political parties in talks that could lead to rare bipartisan truce

For the first time in Malaysia's history, 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 the 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 then embattled 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 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 had 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 and laws to curb party defections and strengthen the role of Parliament.

What's next

Prospects for the deal being sealed brightened on Friday when Mr Ismail announced that his government was proposing several key reforms to "create a new political landscape". These included providing the opposition leader with a salary and facilities accorded to a government minister, and implementing plans to lower the voting age from 21 to 18.

PH said in a statement yesterday that it was leaning towards inking a memorandum of understanding with the government over the reforms. The parties could come to a deal ahead of tomorrow's parliamentary sitting, sources say.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 12, 2021, with the headline 'Political parties in talks that could lead to rare bipartisan truce'. Subscribe