Caretaker government – mirage in a Third World democracy

Sim Kwang Yang | Mar 1, 08 (Malaysiakini)
As I write, on 29th February 2008, a week before polling day, I picked up a copy of the Star.
In the 38 pages before the business sections, among all the election stories and the pages and pages of lucrative advertisements, there were only three news reports about the opposition. Most of the headlines were very complimentary reports of BN leaders and their candidates.
There was more of the same in the Metro and other sections.
Finally, on page 36, there was a column article on Lim Kit Siang and his son Lim Guan Eng. The columnist seems to make an effort at impartiality, but what can any Star columnist do but pour cold water on the opposition.
Star is a national daily owned by the MCA, so you would expect them to read like a BN party organ during election time. But then, I do not have to examine the other English dailies, or any Chinese, Bahasa Malaysia, or Tamil newspaper for the matter, to know that our national media has turned into a giant cog in the publicity machinery of the ruling Barisan coalition.
The publicly owned TV stations are even worse. They have even more to be abhorred because they are funded by the national coffer, and should serve the citizens rather than the political interests of the ruling parties.
Judging from the nightly 8 o’clock prime time news that comes on everyday, you would think that the opposition parties and their leaders do not exist. As the BN supreme leaders lash out at the opposition, you get the surreal impression that they are engaged in a bizarre bout of shadow boxing.
Whenever there is any story covering the opposition parties, it is bound to be something very damaging.
Elections in the US
Such unashamed partisanship on the part of the national media is solid proof that the election is far from free and fair. It also puts paid to the oft-repeated lie that Malaysia aspires to be a First World nation.
Many Malaysians dislike the United States for various reasons, some of which might have been over-simplistic. But you still cannot deny that the US is a mature liberal First World democracy.
In the current presidential nomination race, all the candidates are given a level playing field by the print and electronic media. There, for the media to be impartial does not mean that the newspapers or the TV stations cannot take a political stand and endorse one of the candidates. But it does mean that all the candidates are given equal space and time to elaborate on their platform.
We have seen how, in numerous national and global TV debates, the candidates from the same party, or from different parties for that matter, are grilled by very knowledgeable, critical, though polite, journalists without mercy. Then again, these candidates are given equal treatment by the moderators to make their political assaults on their opponents, and to defend themselves against allegations of all sorts.
There in the US, the presidential candidates from both parties have to raise tens of millions of American Dollars to buy ad time on TV and radio for their campaign messages. Here in Malaysia, we see the ruling parties enjoying free publicity from both the private and public media!
Many elements of the government administrative machinery also serve the ruling parties during election time. For instance, the Special Branch of the police force and the Information Department collect intelligence on the ground regarding voter support for the ruling parties in all constituencies on a daily basis. And they brief the party leaders constantly for them to adjust their election strategy.
In short, the ruling BN coalition behaves as if they are still the government of the day, when in fact, by theory and by convention, the government of the day should have ceased to exist after the parliament was dissolved. By the principle of fair play and ethical imperative, the cabinet should resign upon the dissolution of parliament, and a care-taker government should have been in place during the period between the dissolution of parliament and the day after polling when the election result would have revealed a clear winner to form the next government.
Kit Siang’s suit on principle
It is upon this principle that Lim Kit Siang had earlier on filed a suit in court against the Election Commission seeking a court order for the setting up of a caretaker government after the dissolution of parliament.
As the name would suggest, a caretaker government in a parliamentary democracy is literally a caretaker to fill in the vacuum when the elected government has ended its term of office, and has to go back to the people to seek a fresh mandate.
A caretaker government rules temporarily, performing the rudimentary functions of the state, such as maintaining law and order, the day-to-day running of the administration, and above all, holding an election that is both free and fair.
In Australia and New Zealand, the caretaker government makes particular effort to ensure that the outgoing ruling party will not enjoy undue advantage, such as organising government functions and using public assets for the purpose furthering their interest in the general election.
(Caretaker governments may also be put in place when the government in a democracy is defeated in a motion of no confidence, and a fresh election is immediately pending.)
Strictly speaking then, a caretaker government is one of the parliamentary innovations especially in the British Commonwealth. Its principal task is to ensure that during a general election, the ruling party’s advantage of incumbency must not include their previous hold on government machinery and public resources.
Naturally, the caretaker government as well as the outgoing prime minister and his entire outgoing cabinet cannot be allowed to make policy decisions and significant appointments that will commit the incoming government, or enter into financial transactions and undertakings for which they have no mandate.
In the recent past, caretaker governments have been instituted in Italy, Australia, New Zealand, Palestine, Pakistan, and even in Iraq. But the most interesting case has to be Bangladesh. In that poor unfortunate country, the first caretaker government was introduced in 1990, when three party alliances jointly made a demand for it. In 2006, the system was activated for the fourth time. There, the caretaker government has always been an advisory council headed by the Chief Judge, who ruled the country from 3 months to a year while the parties fought it out at the poll.
Lim Kit Siang’s case will be heard in court on March, and by that time, the court’s decision will almost be merely academic. By that time, polling would be a mere 3 days away, and even if the court grants the decision Kit Siang desires, the purpose of setting up a caretaker government in running a fair and free election would have been defeated.
Still, the court decision on March is still interesting. A favourable decision for Kit Siang would set a precedent in Malaysia with monumental ramifications for the future. Unfortunately, with the present moribund state of the judiciary following the work of the Royal Commission on the Lingam tape, courageous judicial activism is unlikely.
After all, the Malaysian Federal Constitution is silent on the matter of establishing a caretaker government during general elections. The only constitutional instrument is for the outgoing prime minister to advise the King on such a caretaker government together with a list of candidates to constitute the caretaker government.
One cannot foresee how Pak Lah or any future Umno president making such a bold move, without losing his grip on the party. The Umno ideology is clear. They never believe in playing on a level playing field. The idea of equality and fair play is alien to their reason to be. In their subconscious mind, they believe they have a divine right to rule this Tanah Air Melayu. As far as they are concerned, Umno is equated with the State of Malaysia. This is pretty much in line with all authoritarian state.
When the Umno premise is more or less universally accepted by Malaysians either enthusiastically or under protest, the general election has sunk to the level of electing longkang MPs, as candidates vie among themselves to be the ones most diligent at looking at pot holes, writing petitions, inspecting blocked drains and broken toilets.
Whatever the slogan says about making Malaysia into a First World nation by 2020, the sorry state of our democracy shows that our politicians and their constituents are still stuck in the quagmire of their Third World mentality in 2008.
The idea of a caretaker government is a mere mirage on the distant horizon.