Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Would an anti-party hopping law stop politicians from jumping ship?

If at all an anti-party hopping bill becomes law, it may be more of a preventive rather than a corrective measure.

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For quite some time now, there have been strident calls for an anti-hopping law to be passed in Parliament and state assemblies to prevent MPs and representatives from jumping ship for personal, selfish or suspicious reasons.

The Pakatan Harapan (PH) parties are very eager to see this legislation through as they are still smarting from the collapse of their government due to the Sheraton Move.

The tabling an anti-hopping law, re-scheduled for April 11 in Parliament, was one of the conditions in the MoU signed between the government and the opposition. This issue is complicated and even the courts uphold the principle of freedom of association enshrined in the constitution. It is not a matter of signing statutory declarations or agreements as the core matter is political, not legal, and the courts will refuse to judge on political matters.

With the political situation unstable now and possibly after GE15 as well, there could be more expensive by-elections. Already, elections are a costly affair given the increase in voters due to automatic registration and those as young as 18 being allowed to vote. Some prefer the recall election procedure practised in the US, but whatever it is, a re-election cannot be avoided under any system.

If a few MPs opt to join another political party or want to become independents due to differences with their existing parties, it would be difficult to pressure or persuade them to give up their seats as there is only a political bond between the members of a party and not a legal bond. This is one distinguishing feature that has been overlooked by all those clamoring for an anti-party hopping law.

Differences in political opinion can be a justifiable and valid reason for members to leave their party. The courts cannot interfere in this political matter. It would also be a more complex and totally different matter if a large group of MPs citing dissatisfaction or a lack of confidence in the leadership leave the party as was the case with the Sheraton Move, when a large chunk of MPs left PH and formed Perikatan Nasional (PN) with Muhyiddin Yassin as prime minister.

The reason or excuse given for the Sheraton Move was that some members of Bersatu did not agree with what was happening in PH and had decided to break away. This is a classic case of party-hopping and provides a lesson in the pros and cons in drafting any anti-party hopping law.

As it is, the current first-past-the-post British electoral system needs to be changed to a more proportional representation. At present, a party or coalition which wins just 30 to 40% of the popular vote can win the mandate and form a so-called democratic government. This system may have been historically all right for the British as their two-party system which started off between the Liberals and the Conservatives and later between the Labour party and the Conservatives does not create a huge anomaly as it does in countries following the British electoral system. In Malaysia, it is made worse by the highly politicised constituency delineation which creates large voter differences in constituencies.

Even though many in Malaysia did not agree with the Sheraton Move, it was a perfectly acceptable situation, examples of which can be seen in many other countries where a party or a group of legislators withdraw their support for the coalition if they feel that they are against some of the changes made by coalition members.

The voters can’t do much about this as the breakaway MPs would respond by saying that they are holding true to the party principles, unlike the other factions. One faction will accuse the other. A wide range of issues concerning election manifestos, socio-economic and political problems, aspects of government administration and others could end up destabilising the coalition.

Parties may group together to win an election but there is no guarantee that they will stick together for the entire term. Voters do not have much of a choice and can only look on as they have no means, legal or otherwise, to compel the MPs in any way.

How can this sort of thing be prevented from happening? Would it mean holding numerous by-elections all at once, and would this not destabilise the political situation even more and distract the people and government from greater socio-economic priorities?

Malaysia has many small parties now and it would be a risk for the ruling coalition to antagonise them as they could leave citing any excuse and thereby bring down the government, especially if it has a slim majority. The lure of money or other means can be strong, and MPs and state assembly representatives can be tempted to leave the party and jeopardise the situation, especially when there is a slim majority.

Let us consider a situation where Party A (the government) has only a three-seat majority and Party B (the opposition) wants to grab power. Party B uses money, influence or patronage to lure a few MPs from Party A who may have won elections in their constituencies with slim majorities. Will Party A be eager to hold by-elections in these slim-majority areas, knowing the risks? It must be noted that the defecting MPs may not intend to contest the by-elections. Under these circumstances, of what use or benefit is the anti-hopping law to Party A?

Coalitions are the form of government for the present and future, all over the world and also in Malaysia as the days of monolithic parties dominating the government are over. Nowadays, various parties focus or specialise on certain issues to gain the support of the people. In a proportional representation system, as practised in western Europe, even small parties focusing on certain issues get a reasonably high number of MPs who could be a force to be reckoned with in a coalition government.

One might recall that before political parties arrived on the scene, there was a system of elected individual legislators who deemed themselves independents, and party hopping was unheard of.

If at all an anti-party hopping bill becomes law, it may be more of a preventive rather than a corrective measure – preventive in the sense that any MP or assemblyman wanting to jump ship might think twice about the moral and ethical implications. That’s all.

No law can stop party hopping as freedom of association is enshrined in the constitution. It would be better if politicians and leaders practised more principled politics for the betterment of the country.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of MalaysiaNow.

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