Political stability in Malaysia “deteriorated” since Mahathir Mohamad left the country’s Prime Minister post, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU)’s Democracy Index for 2020.

Malaysia, classified as a ‘flawed democracy’, ranked 39th globally with an overall score of 9.25.

Regionally in Asia and Australasia, the nation ranked sixth place behind South Korea and above Timor-Leste.

The EIU noted that political stability in the country “has deteriorated since the departure of Mahathir Mohamad as prime minister in March 2020”.

‘Langkah Sheraton’ or ‘Sheraton Move’ saw Muhyiddin Yassin taking the mantle of Prime Minister from Dr Mahathir following a power vacuum left by the latter’s resignation from the post. The event also catalysed the collapse of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government.

The ‘Sheraton Move’ derived its name from the Petaling Jaya hotel where a meeting took place among leaders from the Malay-centric Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia — now led by Muhyiddin — and factions of Parti Keadilan Rakyat attempting to form an alliance with Umno and other parties in a bid to establish a new government.

PH had earlier wrested power from Najib Razak’s BN administration in 2018, particularly after the former premier became mired in controversy over his alleged abuse of state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad, among others. BN governed Malaysia for 61 years since the nation’s independence prior to the 2018 general election.

The ‘Sheraton Move’ prompted the germination of youth-centric movements such as the Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA) party, founded by Muar MP and former Youth and Sports Minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman to counter the dominance of older politicians in the Malaysian political landscape. A vast majority of Malaysian lawmakers at present are above the age of 50.

The EIU found in its Democracy Index last year that “improvements in electoral process and pluralism have resulted in more democratic political institutions” in Malaysia.

Flawed democracies are described by the EIU as nations in which free and fair elections are held, and “even if there are problems such as infringements on media freedom, basic civil liberties are respected”.

However, significant weaknesses in other aspects of democracy are present in flawed democracies, “including problems in governance, an underdeveloped political culture and low levels of political participation”.

Another category used by the EIU in its Democracy Index is hybrid regimes, which are characterised by “substantial irregularities prevent the countries from being both free and fair”.

Government pressure on opposition parties and candidates may be common in hybrid regimes. Pressure on civil society and the media is typical, where there is harassment of and pressure on journalists. The judiciary is not independent of the executive and the legislative body in such regimes, the EIU stated.

The other two categories — both on the extreme ends of the four types — are full democracies and authoritarian regimes.

In full democracies, basic political freedoms and civil liberties are respected. Effective systems of checks and balances exist. The judiciary is independent of the executive and the legislative, and media — the Fourth Estate — are also independent. There are only limited problems in the functioning of democracies.

In authoritarian regimes, state political pluralism is absent or heavily circumscribed, with many being dictatorships.

“Some formal institutions of democracy may exist, but these have little substance. Elections, if they do occur, are not free and fair. There is disregard for abuses and infringements of civil liberties. Media are typically state-owned or controlled by groups connected to the ruling regime. There is repression of criticism of the government and pervasive censorship. There is no independent judiciary,” according to the EIU.

Nations on the EIU Democracy Index are evaluated based on criteria such as electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, political culture, and civil liberties.

COVID-19 pandemic “likely to further accelerate the shift in the global balance of power towards Asia”: EIU Democracy Index 2020

Asia gaining three new “full democracies” in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan last year, compared to Western Europe losing France and Portugal, signals the “shift in the global balance of power from the West to the East”, the EIU remarked.

The COVID-19 pandemic, in particular, has “accelerated” the said shift, it noted.

“Asia lags behind the West in democratic terms, having only five “full democracies”, compared with western Europe’s 13, and the region also has seven “authoritarian regimes” while western Europe has none.

“Yet the Asia region has, so far, handled the pandemic much better than virtually any other, with lower infection and mortality rates and a fast economic rebound,” said the EIU.

Asian governments’ past experience with the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak, according to the EIU, have prompted them to react decisively during the COVID-19 pandemic, “albeit deploying coercive powers in some cases”.

Governments in Asia, the EIU added, “benefited from well-organised health systems and retained the confidence of their populations”.

“By contrast, European governments were slow to act, some health systems came close to collapse and public trust in government declined,” the EIU said.

Europe’s handling of the pandemic did not bode well for its advocacy of democracy, which is “something that authoritarian China did not fail to point out”, the EIU noted.

“The pandemic has highlighted the widening gap between a dynamic East and a declining West and is likely to further accelerate the shift in the global balance of power towards Asia,” said the EIU.

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