Abdullah in new showdown as royals flex political muscle

25 03 2008
Published on The Brunei Times (http://www.bt.com.bn/en)
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
MALAYSIAN Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was locked in a showdown yesterday with the country’s largely ceremonial king over who will lead the oil-rich northeastern state of Terengganu.

Malaysia’s royalty is posing its biggest challenge to the government since the powers of the hereditary rulers were clipped 25 years ago, and comes when Abdullah’s authority has been wounded following elections that handed unprecedented gains to the opposition

The confrontation goes beyond the division of powers between figurehead rulers and the elected government and is also about the cosy relationships between business and politics in Malaysia, analysts say.

“This is not just politics,” said political analyst Rustam Sani. “I think financial interests have to do with it. They (the sultans) are not happy since the politicians are having a free hand in business.”

Some of the nine royal families are involved in business.

Malaysia has nine sultans who take turns ruling for five years as king. Their mostly ceremonial duties include appointing the chief ministers of their states. The current king is the 46-year-old Terengganu ruler, Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin.

Other rulers have also begun to speak out on issues of governance. The Sultan of Selangor state last year reprimanded a town councillor for building a house without required permits. The rulers, whose powers were sharply curtailed in 1983 by then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, are seeking to reclaim a stake in politics along with a resurgent opposition in a more robust parliament.

In the watershed election, Abdullah’s National Front coalition was ousted in five of Malaysia’s 13 states and lost the two-thirds majority in parliament it had held for nearly four decades at the elections.

The coalition retained power in Terengganu, but the sultan there refused to swear in incumbent chief minister Idris Jusoh, whom Abdullah said had the support of the majority of the state’s assemblymen.

On Sunday, the palace appointed its own candidate, only to be snubbed by the prime minister, who said that appointing anyone but Idris was unconstitutional.

Malaysia’s law minister was quoted as saying yesterday that everyone, including the monarch, should respect the law.

“The discretion of the monarch in appointing the chief minister is not an absolute personal discretion,” Zaid Ibrahim told the New Straits Times.

Analysts said there were other reasons why Idris fell out of favour with the sultan, including allegations he had been disrespectful to the ruler and his family.

The sultans have reasserted themselves in other states, too. In the state of Perlis, the sultan overruled Abdullah’s nominee for chief minister and appointed his own candidate.

The sultans are meant to represent Malay Muslim sovereignty and at one time were a powerful counterweight to the elected government. But in amendments to the constitution in 1983, the king’s veto power was abolished and the monarch could no longer block bills in parliament.

Another amendment in 1993 took away the immunity from prosecution the nine sultans once enjoyed.

“After a decline of power and influence between 1983 and 1994, the spirals of history are in motion again,” said constitution expert Shad Saleem Faruqi. “The last few years have seen a discernible upsurge in popular perception that the rulers constitute a vital check and balance mechanism of the constitution,” he said. Reuters



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