In Malaysia and Tunisia alike, young democracies are being destabilised by dysfunctional leadership

by | Aug 1, 2021 | Blog

  • In Malaysia, the state of emergency appears to be coming to an end, as announced last week during a special session of parliament
  • In Tunisia, the turmoil may be just beginning after President Kais Saied’s recent power grab, which critics have described as a coup d’état

In the past week, events in Malaysia and Tunisia have highlighted the unprecedented challenges faced by two young democracies, brought on by complex domestic politics and leadership struggling to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

In Malaysia, the state of emergency is poised to end, as announced by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s government during a special session of parliament. In Tunisia, the turmoil may be just beginning after President Kais Saied invoked a state of emergency, which critics have described as a coup d’état.

Malaysia’s fluid political crisis can be traced back to January 2020, when Mahathir Mohammad resigned as prime minister and Muhyiddin was appointed as his successor by the king. Without a popular mandate, Muhyiddin has held power with a razor-thin parliamentary majority, despite the opposition’s persistent attempts to force him from office. Since the early days of his rule, Muhyiddin has made unprecedented political manoeuvres – a series of political coups that have allowed him to remain in power.

To that end, Muhyiddin has benefited from the country’s state of emergency, which was declared in January this year as a response to the coronavirus pandemic, leading to the suspension of parliament. Muhyiddin has therefore been able to rule effectively by decree, entrenching the country’s political divisions and testing its democratic foundations.

Tunisia is also a transitional democracy. In 2011, the dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown after 23 years in power, propelling a wave of popular movements across the region known as the Arab spring.

The new constitution enacted in 2014 enshrined a “republican, democratic, participatory system”.

The president, who is head of state, appoints the prime minister, who is head of government, based on a parliamentary majority. Ennahda (Party of Renaissance), a Muslim democratic party, is currently the largest group in parliament.

Executive powers are then shared between the president, the prime minister and the cabinet. At times, this system has produced a complex relationship between the offices of president and prime minister.

Since 2019, political cohabitation – when the head of state serves with an antagonistic parliamentary majority – has complicated executive decision-making, as the president and prime minister have regularly been at odds. Since last year, it has made the country’s pandemic response particularly difficult.

Tunisia, like Malaysia, was initially praised for its response but a surge in cases of the Delta variant has pushed the country’s fragile health system to breaking point and ultimately aggravated the political crisis.

Saied, an independent who was elected president in 2019, earlier this week declared a state of emergency, firing senior officials – including Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and his cabinet – and seizing all executive powers.

Although Tunisia’s constitution states the president can exercise such powers only “in the event of imminent danger threatening the nation” and in “consultation with the head of government”, Saied said his power grab was necessary due to the soaring number of coronavirus cases.

The constitution also stipulates that during such a period, parliament shall remain “in continuous session”. Saied, however, has frozen parliament and suspended the assembly for 30 days, while also withdrawing the legal immunity of elected members.

The Tunisian judiciary has also opened an investigation against alleged corrupt lawmakers, targeting MPs from Ennahda and Qalb Tounes, another major party.

Like Muhyiddin in Malaysia, Saied has used the state of emergency to gain the upper hand in political feuds and circumvent gridlock.

However, where Muhyiddin maintained the function of his cabinet and organised state elections in Sabah last year, Saied has, by closing parliament and suppressing the cabinet, annihilated the legislature and extinguished the democratic principle of the balance of power.

The leader has strengthened military oversight of the nation’s pandemic response. He has appointed a new home affairs adviser, fired the director of state television and closed Ennahda’s media outlets. It is unclear whether he plans to appoint a new prime minister. Most opposition parties have denounced Saied’s manoeuvring as a coup d’état.

In Tunisia, as in Malaysia, this new rule by decree threatens to undermine the essence of democracy.

In Malaysia, foreign workers have been directly affected by the state of emergency after the Home Ministry conducted vast operations to arrest and detain documented and undocumented migrants, creating fear among communities that had been promised access to coronavirus vaccines.

The arrests turned detention centres into infection clusters, earning criticism from human rights groups including Amnesty International and Lawyers for Liberty.

The developments have also revealed the shared tendency for both leaders to personalise politics.

During the pandemic – and amid the apocalyptic narratives arising from it – both leaders have exhibited a saviour complex. Muhyiddin has sought to portray himself as a protector and a father figure to the Malaysian people. Saied has similarly claimed power for himself under the pretext of “saving people” from the pandemic.

The patriarchal narrative no longer works, meaning Tunisians and Malaysians alike have been left confused by the direction taken by their leaders.

In Malaysia, Muhyiddin at the king’s urging finally called for a special session of parliament, which opened on Monday. Cabinet’s plans to manage the pandemic response were presented but no debate was allowed, although there was plenty of shouting and name-calling as Muhyiddin and his ministers addressed MPs. He also took the unprecedented step of delegating Minister of Finance Tengku Zafrul Aziz to answer questions and left parliament before the end of the session.

The revelation by Minister of Law Tayikuddin Hassan that the emergency ordinances had been revoked without allowing any debate in parliament came as a shock to all lawmakers – and to the king, who released a statement the next day saying he had not endorsed the revocation.

Malaysian politicians and lawyers have since been engaged in a constitutional battle to determine whether the government’s latest steps are constitutional, as defended by the prime minister, or unconstitutional, as argued by the king. Most opposition leaders have called for Muhyiddin’s immediate resignation. The United Malays National Organisation, or Umno, which is a major stakeholder in Muhyiddin’s government, so far appears divided about its next course of action.

In Tunisia, the future is also uncertain. Saied’s next moves will be heavily scrutinised and will determine the fate of Tunisian democracy. There are already echoes of the way other autocrats in the region hijacked the Arab spring movement to revert to authoritarian rule and repressed the Islamist movement across the region. In response to international criticism, Saied has declared he would not become a dictator and that his recent manoeuvres were not a coup d’état.

In Malaysia, Muhyiddin is a skilled political survivor left with few options – for him, though, resignation is not one of them. He has been underestimated too often before and could once again find his way out of a difficult situation and one more battle against the king. Confusion among the political opposition may yet enable him to survive at least until the next election.

That election could be called as early as 2022 or Muhyiddin could attempt to last a full term if he manages to maintain his majority. In the past, his bold moves have allowed him to stay in power longer than anyone would have predicted.

Even so, the state of emergency has not ended the pandemic and neither has it stopped politicking – a lesson that should be noted by the Tunisian president.

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