TAN SRI Muhyiddin Yassin’s unprecedented move to have an emergency declared at Batu Sapi to stop an election is perilous, premature and ill-considered because a by-election can be held with proper social distancing and other measures in position – many countries have held their elections during the pandemic.

Moreover, it sets a dangerous precedent which can be used time and again by irresponsible and unstable governments to stay in power by coming up or even conjuring up reasons which are not entirely valid to declare an emergency.

Considering that this current backdoor government faces a vote later this month on the budget and the fact that this vote may well be defeated, such a declaration of emergency for the Batu Sapi by-election has serious ramifications.

What will happen if the government loses the budget vote? One interpretation is that it is a clear indication that the prime minister no longer has the confidence of the house and that he has to tender his resignation along with that of his cabinet to the King.

Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin could also recommend to the King that Parliament be dissolved but that will be a decision for the King to make after he has carefully considered whether another person commands the majority in Parliament. If he decides Parliament needs to be dissolved, elections will have to be held.

The only way to stop those elections is to declare an emergency. What if Muhyiddin then recommends to the King that the elections cannot be held because of Covid-19? Surely he would argue that if an emergency is declared because of a single by-election then it must be declared if an entire country goes to the polls.

Does he then stay on as prime minister until Covid-19 is sorted out or considered to be not a threat to public health anymore? If he does, then it is an untenable situation because he – assuming the budget vote was defeated in Parliament – will be prime minister even though he does not enjoy the confidence of Parliament.

That’s a perilously unstable and rather dangerous situation because it not only indefinitely prolongs his tenure as prime minister when he no longer has the mandate of Parliament but gives him complete freedom to make emergency promulgations through the King, giving him unfettered powers.

There is a solution which is simpler and which will allow the democratic process to go on. That is to simply have the by-election in Batu Sapi, set clear standard operating procedures or SOPs, ensure they are followed and have postal voting for those who are not in the constituency to vote. The earlier lockdown measures demonstrated that this government is quite capable of ensuring compliance.

SOPs disregarded during recent Sabah election

Muhyiddin said that the emergency was declared to postpone the Batu Sapi by-elections scheduled for December 5. He offered the example of the recent Sabah elections for the emergency, saying the third wave of Covid-19 infections was due to the Sabah elections.

However, the problem with the Sabah elections was that SOPs were widely flouted and campaigning unrestricted. Tellingly, Muhyiddin did not use the emergency option to postpone the Sabah elections which would have left the Harapan government in power there.

The failure of the backdoor government was that for political reasons it allowed unrestricted campaigning in Sabah and uncontrolled travel both within Sabah, and between the peninsula and Sabah.

With Sabah already seriously under the throes of Covid-19 then, the health authorities must have advised proper enforcement of social distancing and restriction of movement within Sabah and between the state and the peninsula. The question is: why were they not enforced?

It is not difficult to hold elections under Covid-19. Campaigning can be limited to social media and in controlled circumstances in open spaces and halls. Youtube, Facebook and the social media offer considerable scope for campaigning without going to the ground.

Postal votes, a system which already exists, can be used for those who cannot travel back to the constituencies they are registered in to vote. A mechanism can be put in place to ensure that there is no chance of tampering with them.

The Batu Sapi by-election could have been carefully crafted to ensure that voting was safe, secure and participative without being dangerous, becoming a model not just for other by-elections, but for general elections.

The evidence is that general elections can still be held in spite of Covid-19. The world’s second-largest democracy, the US with a population of 330 million, recently held its elections and introduced things like postal voting to reduce risk, although Donald Trump rallies were not socially distanced.

A better example is Korea, with a population of 51 million which held their election right in the middle of the pandemic in April, with no significant signs of increased Covid-19 cases as a result of the elections.

Singapore held its election in July without much consequence as far as Covid-19 was concerned but with a setback for the current government which did not win as easily as expected. New Zealand successfully held its elections just last month.

Ensure workable postal and remote voting systems

According to an article by the Council of Foreign Relations, “…experts say elections held so far have shown that the risk of transmission in polling places decreases if officials enforce social distancing, require mask-wearing, increase ventilation, and sanitize surfaces, among other measures.”

These are measures that the Malaysian health authorities, police and the Election Commission (EC) are easily able to enforce – they already have had months of practice.

In addition, “just providing different remote options on how to vote can also help minimise conglomerations and the risk of person-to-person transmission,” said Fernanda Buril, a senior researcher at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), quoted in the article.

The EC should help ensure postal voting works well and then press on ahead with a system which will enable remote voting instead of blindly endorsing the government’s view that voting is dangerous.

This backdoor government is a dangerous one – first, it allows SOPs to be openly flouted without consequence after assisting an effort to engineer the overthrow of the Sabah state government which led to elections there in the first place.

Then it used the spread of Covid-19 – something caused by its direct actions and neglect in Sabah – to delay by-elections which have to be held within 60 days, using an emergency to bypass the Federal Constitution.

MPs should not be intimidated by this turn of events when they vote for or against the budget later this month – the only thing they have to consider is whether the budget is a good one or not. If not, vote against it.

There is only so much a backdoor government can do to stay in power. Eventually, the people will suss them out for what they are and that will help them in eventually losing the mandate they never had in the first place but obtained through dubious means.– The Vibes, November 19, 2020

P. Gunasegaram, editorial consultant at The Vibes, says an unstable government badly wrought with questionable deals, betrayals and party-hopping destabilises the entire nation.