OVER the past week or so, the political scenery in a few countries around Europe and Asia saw quite dramatic shifts. Let us first look at the United Kingdom. Some Filipino readers may not be familiar with the British election system, which has also been more or less inherited by a number of neighboring countries which were former British colonies, so perhaps some explanation is due here. Unlike the American or Philippine election systems whereby voters cast separate ballots for the President, the Senate and the House of Representatives, the British voters have only one vote in a national (distinct from local) election. Under this so-called Westminster parliamentary system, a member of parliament (MP) is elected from each constituency, similar to how representatives are elected in the Philippines.
But the UK, as the name suggests, does not have an executive or president, but a monarch (currently a queen) as a symbolic head of state, and a prime minister (PM) who wields real executive powers. Instead of being separately elected, the PM is appointed by the British monarch as being the MP “commanding the confidence of the majority” in the lower house of the parliament. In effect, this would be the leader of the parliamentary party with more than half the total number of MPs. Each parliamentary term is up to five years, and within this period, if the majority party decides to change its leader, the new leader typically becomes the prime minister and may theoretically serve till the end of the current parliamentary term.
This is what happened to the current British PM Theresa May, who replaced her predecessor David Cameron after the latter’s pro-European stance was narrowly defeated in the so-called Brexit (whether UK should exit the European Union) referendum last year, despite the Conservative Party which they both belong to having won an election with absolute majority a year earlier. As such, although May may legally serve out the current government’s term until 2020, strictly speaking her PM appointment could be said to have been done without a “popular” mandate, in the sense that it was not she but Cameron who led the Conservatives into the previous national election. Her assumption of the premiership was the result of a Conservative Party leadership contest after Cameron resigned to take the blame for the Brexit vote, and which May won by default as her comrade-opponents dropped out of the race one after another. At least two politico-diplomatic challenges thus arose to haunt May.
The first challenge is a party-internal one, as there are still strong political undercurrents within the Conservative ranks, especially among those who still retain a pro-EU mentality. Taking advantage of her fresh and untested premiership as well as her lack of the aforementioned “popular” mandate, they tried not so subtly to revolt against her, including even tacitly advocating a fresh Brexit referendum so as to reverse the previous (albeit narrow) popular preference for leaving the EU. To a large extent, May urgently needs to lead her party into a national election and win a result comparable to (or, even better, surpassing) that obtained by Cameron two years ago. This would buttress her leadership stance both within the Conservative Party and on the overall British political stage.
Another challenge facing May is an external one. As her government honored the Brexit referendum result, triggering the so-called Brexit notification procedure to set in motion the expectedly protracted Brexit negotiations over the next two years vis-a-vis the EU, the latter assumed a seemingly less than amicable attitude on the matter. Instead of being accommodating to the British wish to withdraw its EU membership, the EU appeared to be poised to make it exceedingly difficult for, or even “punish,” the UK for daring to not share the EU dream of building “an ever closer union” among EU member states. Of course, this tough stance also serves to loudly dissuade the other EU member states which might also harbor similar “exit” thoughts. And if the cacophonic “noise” within the UK between the pro- and anti-Brexit camps continues to linger, the EU side can of course take advantage of the resulting “weak” voice of the British side during the Brexit negotiations.
Therefore, May surely welcomes a resounding electoral victory which would not only boost the morale of the British negotiating teams, but also more fundamentally reaffirm the British desire to exit the EU.
I could not help but observe the comparative resilience of our own regional organization in this part of the world, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). Despite being an arguably less ambitious organization when it comes to regional political integration, Asean has survived and some may even say prospered over the years, with no apparent danger of imminent dissolution. It is precisely this sort of flexible and pragmatic outlook that has served the interests of this region very well.