GE15: Hung parliament, coalition-building common in 21st century

On the eve of the 15th General Election (GE15), most political observers are still unsure as to what is the likely outcome.

But one thing is almost certain – not a single political grouping, be it Pakatan Harapan (PH), Perikatan Nasional (PN), Barisan Nasional (BN), Gerakan Tanah Air (GTA), Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS), and Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS), will have enough seats in Dewan Rakyat to form the next government on their own.

If the preceding phenomenon were to take place, Malaysia will, for the first time in its political history, have a hung parliament.

The only way out of this political stalemate is to form a coalition government, whereby a coalition of political parties of different persuasions, cooperate to form a majority in Parliament, paving the way for the installation of a new government.

While this political scenario is a novelty in Malaysia, many democratic countries have had a hung parliament.

In Australia’s 2010 general election, for example, there was a 72-72 seat tie between Labor and the Liberal-National Coalition.

Former prime minister Julia Gillard from the Labor Party, however, managed to secure the support of four independents and the Green party to form the government.

Canada, on the other hand, had five hung parliaments in seven elections. In 2021, the Liberal Party won only 157 out of a simple 170 majority seats, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau managed to lead a minority government.

Another case is India, where a coalition government had to be formed between the Indian National Congress and the Janata Party from 1989 to 2014.

While this is a way out of a hung parliament, the next question to ask is, whether a coalition government of political parties from different political persuasions, can form a viable, workable government.

If we were to take the cue from what had happened following the ‘Sheraton Move’, the coming together of political parties with differing goals had, in one way or another, led to political instability.

The precursor to the ‘Sheraton Move’ was the goal of incompatibility among the different parties within that coalition.

Put in another way, a coalition government has many limitations mainly due to the political rivalry among the parties that had agreed to work together at the outset. The differing political agenda and the scramble for largesse would inevitably lead to cracks and eventually the collapse of the government.

It should be pointed out that Italy had 68 coalition governments in its 76-year history and the fall was mainly due to political squabbles, personality clashes, and the lack of consensus among the political leaders.

What’s more, we need to be aware that there is no constitutional provision on the setting up of a coalition government. Most practices in putting together a coalition are based on conventions.

There is without a doubt that we are witnessing a new era in Malaysian politics in which a big majority for a single political party is no longer the norm.

This political change is in line with studies that demonstrate that in the 21st century, the election results in many countries point to the fact that coalition-building is becoming a lot more common.

While we may be apprehensive of the possible weaknesses and ineffectiveness of a coalition government, we need to accept the fact that a hung parliament is the result of the voters’ mandate.

Malaysians therefore must be ready to accept political change, and politicians need to learn to accommodate in order for the government to work for the people.

Building trust among politicians in a dog-eat-dog world is an impossibility. We can only hope that a workable government will come out of this electoral exercise.

In the run-up to GE15, Twentytwo13 has partnered with Centre for Policy Research and International Studies (CenPRIS), Universiti Sains Malaysia, to offer readers research-based analyses and insights.

Established in 1974, CenPRIS is Malaysia’s oldest social science research centre. It serves as a resource centre for information and analysis of critical issues of common concern, bringing people together to exchange views, build expertise, and develop policy options.