THE British Conservative Party has a new leader, and the United Kingdom has a new Prime Minister, following the Westminster convention of the individual most likely to command the majority of the members of the House of Commons being invited by the Head of State to form a government.
The speed with which the party decided and rallied behind their new leader was quicker than expected — it took less than three weeks between David Cameron announcing his desire to resign on June 24 to Queen Elizabeth appointing her 13th Prime Minister, Theresa May. Originally, several rounds of votes among Conservative MPs were to select two candidates for consideration by the wider party membership, but instead, after the first round of voting, a series of withdrawals meant that Theresa May was the only candidate standing.
By contrast, in the UK opposition Labour Party there will now — after weeks of dissent from Labour MPs against their party leader — be a formal leadership election as two candidates have declared their intention to replace Jeremy Corbyn. But even getting to that stage has led to bitter infighting in the party over the rules of the contest — specifically, whether the incumbent should automatically be on the ballot paper, and how long a person needs to have been a party member to vote. The United Kingdom Independence Party is also looking for a new leader.
Of course, the implications of those party leadership contests are less profound since they won’t result in a new Prime Minister. And indeed, there has been disquiet about May’s “coronation”. If her final opponent in the party leadership contest had not withdrawn, there would have been a ballot of 150,000 members of the Conservative Party which would have given the winner a greater legitimacy as leader.
More fundamentally, some argue that an internal party election is no way to select de facto the most powerful executive post in the country. Regardless of Westminster convention, many are saying that until May holds a general election and wins her “own mandate”, her democratic legitimacy will be questioned.
Ironically, since 2011 it has been more difficult for a Prime Minister to decide the timing of an election: whereas before the Prime Minister could ask the monarch to dissolve parliament at any time, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act requires parliamentary approval before the Prime Minister recommends the monarch
to do so.
In Malaysia however, the timing of an election (if before the maximum constitutional limit) still largely lies in the Prime Minister’s hands, as long as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong consents to it — and the same logic applies at the state-level too. The historical record shows that some have waited longer than others to call a general election after accepting the top job.
Whatever controversies, accusations, investigations, revelations or petitions might be ongoing against a Prime Minister or Chief Minister within their party or country, the decision to call an election or whether or not to resign are still very much theirs to make.
Intriguingly, when Tunku Abdul Rahman resigned the premiership in favour of Tun Abdul Razak, he did not relinquish the post of party president simultaneously.
Thus, Tun Abdul Razak has the unique record of having been Prime Minister of the country before becoming the leader of his party: establishing the precedent in Malaysia, one can “command the confidence of the majority of the members of the Dewan Rakyat” without being the leader of the largest party.
Meanwhile in the United States, the process of finalising presidential candidates for the two main political parties has still not completed, months after the first primaries. It may seem much slower and cumbersome than how the Brits have installed a new Prime Minister, but the difference shows that countries can adopt unique practices and processes as a result of their histories, institutions and founding ideologies which nonetheless are broadly accepted by the majority of the population: the process of finding a new leader is
And so, in the UK Conservative Party leadership contest, the method of selecting the next leader was clear. The stakeholders had confidence in those overseeing and operationalising the transition, such as the Chairman of the Conservative Party’s 1922 Committee (consisting of the party’s backbench Members of Parliament). And those outside the party also knew what these rules were, and did not try to reinterpret or usurp them.
I fear that in Malaysia, consensus even on the rules is lacking, especially when figures cite arguments entirely outside the constitution of the country — let alone the rules of political parties — when commenting on the circumstances in which their leaders can be changed.
Tunku Zain Al-’Abidin is Founding President of IDEAS