KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 26 — The appointment of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad as interim prime minister after his abrupt resignation from the very same office has thrown many Malaysians for a loop, especially after he announced the dissolution of his Cabinet.
Malay Mail tapped the views of two legal experts familiar with constitutional law to clarify the democratic process for Malaysia during this political upheaval, and the unprecedented measures being taken by Yang di-Pertuan Agong Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah, including personally interviewing each of the 222 elected lawmakers in Parliament to find out the country’s direction in the next few days.
Interim prime minister
According to lawyers Rajsurian Pillai and Surendra Ananth, there is no legal provision for an “interim prime minister” in the Federal Constitution.
Surendra said the current situation differs slightly from that of a caretaker government, which is conventionally set up when Parliament is dissolved.
“Currently the prime minister is reappointed, and Parliament is in session. This term interim PM is not a legal term, It is a political term. Since Mahathir has been reappointed, he can carry out all functions of a PM,” the constitutional lawyer said.
“The term interim seems to denote that it is not meant to be a long-lasting arrangement and pending the determination of a successor,” he added.
The term “caretaker government” is also not mentioned in the Federal Constitution. However, Malaysia follows the Westminster parliamentary system, and the British model has provided precedents for such situations.
A caretaker government conventionally follows the dissolution of a parliament pending the outcome of fresh elections. This usually sees those appointed ministers previously maintaining their portfolios as caretakers until a new government is formed. The caretaker role can also kick in when a ruling coalition fails to garner support through a vote of confidence in Parliament.
For now, Dr Mahathir, who has been appointed interim prime minister, is in charge of running the day-to-day government affairs with the assistance of the Chief Secretary to the Government.
“Currently, there is no time limit as to how long Tun Dr Mahathir will be the interim prime minister. It seems it will be as long as needed until a new PM is appointed,” Rajsurian said.
He pointed to Article 43(2)a of the Federal Constitution, which states that the Yang di-Pertuan Agong shall appoint a member of Parliament as prime minister to preside over Cabinet, who is likely to command the majority members in the Parliament.
Rajsurian highlighted further that the law only states that the person who is to become prime minister must be an MP, and does not necessarily have to be the leader of a political party, or even be part of one.
“Whoever commands the confidence of the house need not be the president of any party. The person can be any MP,” he said.
Rajsurian said the recent interviews in Istana Negara called by Sultan Abdullah, while unprecedented, is for the monarch to find out who each of the 222 elected representatives supports to be prime minister, regardless of personal political affiliations.
“Thus, this is why the Yang di-Pertuan Agong is meeting the 222 MPs. This is to determine who in fact, commands the confidence of the house and thus appointing him or her as the prime minister.
“Which will be taking over from the interim prime minister,” he added.
According to Surendra, it is possible in the current situation for Malaysia to have a new government formed without having to go through fresh elections.
“Yes, it can be formed if another individual with majority support in Parliament can be found. This is if you read the constitution literally.
“However, a completely different government does go against the core principles of democracy and the spirit of the constitution. I think an argument can be made that it would be unconstitutional in this context.
“In my view, the proper way is to have a vote in Parliament itself as it is transparent,” he said.
At the time of writing, Opposition parties Umno, PAS and MCA have called for fresh elections to be held to allow Malaysians to decide who they want to represent them.
The Agong has called 83 MPs to be interviewed yesterday, and will continue with 139 more today.