Budget 2021 vote: What will happen and what’s at stake

Syed Jaymal Zahiid And Yiswaree Palansamy
·4-min read
Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin attending the Third Meeting of the Third Term of the 14th Parliament in Kuala Lumpur, November 9, 2020. — Bernama pic
Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin attending the Third Meeting of the Third Term of the 14th Parliament in Kuala Lumpur, November 9, 2020. — Bernama pic

KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 26 — Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin is set to put his maiden Budget to a vote today, in what could be his toughest political test since taking office in March.

The Perikatan Nasional administration tabled a record RM355 billion Budget 2021 on November 6.

The 2021 federal spending plan has been dubbed the Covid-19 budget, with certain ministries and agencies seeing increased allocations. Finance Minister Datuk Seri Tengku Zafrul Abdul Aziz said raising spending will help efforts to spur economic recovery and respond to the pandemic.

After three weeks of debate in the Lower House, the Budget will be put to a vote.

What’s at stake

Muhyiddin and the ruling coalition were sworn in amid controversy surrounding its parliamentary majority. Since then, opponents have continued to demand for a vote of confidence to test the prime minister’s support.

Just recently PKR president and Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim claimed to have the backing of more than 112 MPs to form a new government. A dozen of MPs across the partisan line have since filed private motions asking for a vote of confidence to be held.

Citing technicalities, Dewan Rakyat Speaker Datuk Azhar Azizan Harun said the motions are unlikely to be tabled, fueling talks that Muhyiddin’s opponents would then vote against the budget instead.

What if the Budget is not passed?

Constitutional lawyer New Sin Yew said if the government fails to pass the Supply Bill, it means two things.

First, the government is not able to withdraw money from the Consolidated Fund for expenditure for the year 2021, because Article 104 of the Federal Constitutes requires Parliament to authorise any withdrawal save and except for very limited purposes.

Secondly, and likely the most important for Muhyiddin, it ultimately implies the loss of confidence in the prime minister’s leadership.

“Majority of the MPs have no confidence in the Prime Minister to trust him with the spending of monies from the Consolidated Fund,” New said.

“By convention, a Supply Bill is very much a confidence vote. Losing a Supply Bill is seen to require the Prime Minister to either resign or call for a new election,” he added.

“In addition to (the first point), the government that is not able to spend money is not able to govern because the day to day running of the government requires expenditures to be withdrawn from the Consolidated Fund.”

What happens next?

Muhyiddin is left with a few options.

Constitutional lawyer Lim Wei Jiet said Muhyiddin could resign and allow Yang di-Pertuan Agong to appoint another MP as prime minister, whose government would then table a new Budget, or he could request to dissolve Parliament. If the Agong accepts, a general election will have to be called.

The Agong has the discretionary power to reject the call for a dissolution, according to the lawyer. In this event, the monarch would most probably appoint another MP as prime minister.

But all the options above are convention, Lim stressed. By law, Muhyiddin can still cling on to power by tabling a new budget, which would repeat the entire process.

“Since this is only a convention, there really is no legal obligation to resign or dissolve Parliament if the Budget is defeated,” the lawyer said.

Will Muhyiddin survive the vote?

At the moment, Muhyiddin appeared to have secured sufficient support to pass the Budget. Despite tension between his Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) and Umno, the latter has expressed its willingness to heed the Agong’s call for a cease and desist, and that it would remain committed to helping the incumbent government tackle the pandemic.

This included supporting Budget 2021. Just on Tuesday Barisan Nasional ministers and deputy ministers pledged their full trust in Muhyiddin and his government’s plan to revive the economy and alleviate the lives of those affected by the outbreak.

Still, not all of Umno’s MPs have openly pledged support, giving rise to speculation that many could defy convention and not vote en bloc.

Lawyer Nizam Bashir said Muhyiddin may have no option but to follow convention and resign should he fail to get the Budget passed.

“If the government loses the vote on the Supply Bill/2021 Budget, that is generally taken to be a loss of confidence in countries utilising a Westminster system of government,” he said.

“When this happens, the prime minister is required to either to resign immediately or seek a dissolution of Parliament.”

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