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What is vote of confidence on which Prime Minister Muhyiddin’s future hinges?

Think you know how a vote of confidence on which Prime Minister Muhyiddin’s future hinges works? 

Hours following the withdrawal of support by 11 members of parliament from the United Malays National Organisation, calling the continuity of Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin’s administration into question, he addressed the confusion by offering himself up for a make-or-break moment – vote of confidence – when parliament sitting resumes in September.  

The razor-thin majority he commands – or commanded – always means his premiership lives on tenterhooks. More so in a country where elected representatives have a tendency of unilaterally going against voters’ wishes by defecting (gotcha) and ever-changing alliances (the enemy of my enemy is my friend) are the norm. Prior to this yet-another-political-thriller-in-the-making, Muhyiddin and the Perikatan Nasional coalition he presides over was thought to be bolstered by 113 to 115 members of parliament out of 222 seats. Following the rescinded support, it appears his premiership is untenable.  

Firdaus Husni, chief human rights strategist of Malaysian Centre for Constitutionalism and Human Rights
Firdaus Husni (Photo: Prestige Malaysia)

Meanwhile, we have reached out to Firdaus Husni, chief human rights strategist of Malaysian Centre for Constitutionalism and Human Rights, to harness her expertise. Here, she unravels everything you ought to know about a vote of confidence. 

Till the next sitting where members of parliament will have to bare their real intentions in the hallowed chamber, we can all tune into Spotify for some apt numbers – Green Day (Wake Me Up When September Ends), The Clash (Should I Stay or Should I Go), Bonnie Tyler (Holding Out for a Hero), Lenny Kravitz (It Ain’t Over ’til It’s Over) and Justin Timberlake (What Goes Around… Comes Around)

What is a vote of confidence and who can trigger the motion? Can members of parliament abstain from voting? What if they aren't present during the sitting?

One of the features of our parliament is that the prime minister must be someone who the King views as “likely to command the confidence of the majority of the members of that House.” The Constitution, however, does not set out how “confidence of the majority” can be determined.  

A vote of confidence has been regarded as a parliamentary convention to determine whether or not the prime minister still holds the confidence of the majority. Any minister, including the prime minister, or member of parliament can move the motion for a vote of confidence.  

In 1976, the then Prime Minister Tun Hussein Onn had a vote of confidence tabled and passed, proving the legitimacy of his premiership. 

Article 43(2)(a) uses the phrase “majority of the members of the House.” This refers to an absolute majority, specifically 111 + 1 members of parliament. The vote count cannot be out of those present and voting.

What is the majority support required? What happens if it is 50% on the dot in terms of approval?

A confidence vote requires an absolute majority. This means the motion must be supported by at least 112 members of parliament to pass. If the voting results in a 111-111 outcome, we then have a hung parliament, as there is no clear majority. In a hung parliament, the role of the King becomes more significant in the appointment of the next prime minister.

In the event the prime minister gets voted out, is he immediately stripped of his responsibilities? Can he remain defiant and still declare himself the prime minister? If so, what happens then?

If the confidence vote is defeated, this means the prime minister no longer has the confidence of the majority of the members of parliament. When this happens, the Federal Constitution states that he must resign, and so will his whole cabinet.  

If he does not resign, he can request for the parliament to be dissolved, paving the way for a general election. In both situations, he will continue to be the prime minister in a caretaker capacity until a new prime minister is appointed. 

Even if the prime minister refuses to resign, the Federal Court in Nizar v Zambry sets the precedent that the prime minister is deemed to have vacated his office. This is because Article 43(4) states that “If the prime minister ceases to command the confidence of the majority…, the prime minister shall tender the resignation of the cabinet.” The word “shall” means mandatory, in that it must take place.

If a consensus can't be reached to form a majority government, can a minority government lead the country?

If a majority government cannot be formed (likely because a coalition governing majority cannot be worked out and no one person holds an absolute majority support of Dewan Rakyat), the King may then appoint a minority government.  

Unsurprisingly, a minority government is in a precarious position as it relies on the support of other members of parliament not affiliated to the minority government to pass budget and laws. This will likely lead to an early dissolution of parliament to pave the way for an election in favour of a majority government.

Can a vote of confidence again be triggered if any party remains unconvinced or dissatisfied with the outcome? Can a snap election be called if the situation remains unresolved?

There is no limit or time frame on tabling a fresh motion for a vote of confidence. However, calling for another motion of confidence without a clear ground is likely to be frowned upon as a vote of confidence is regarded as an accepted parliamentary practice, the outcome of which must be respected by the parliamentarians themselves. 

A snap election is likely to happen next if the motion of confidence is defeated, and the King dissolves the parliament.

Must the prime ministerial candidate be a member of parliament? Can the person be a senator or an elected state representative?

In Malaysia, Article 43(2)(a) of the Federal Constitution sets out the qualification for a prime ministerial candidate. He must be 1) a member of the Dewan Rakyat; and 2) likely to have the confidence of the majority of the members of Dewan Rakyat.

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Hero and feature images by Mohd RASFAN / AFP

Justin Ng
Digital Content Director, Kuala Lumpur
Often think of myself as a journalist and so I delve deeper into a range of topics. Talk to me about current affairs, watches, travel, drinks, new experiences and more importantly, the business, economics and dynamics behind it.