Stop the ‘hop’


Election Commission officers carrying ballot boxes into the tallying centre in Tasek Gelogor, Penang, in 2018. Party-hopping not only destabilises politics but, most importantly, it also undermines the rights of voters and erodes democracy.

In an exclusive interview, Sunday Star speaks to former Dewan Rakyat deputy speaker Datuk Seri Azalina Othman, who has taken the initiative to submit a Private Member’s Bill to tackle the growing habit of party hopping among politicians.

LATER this week, Melaka will vote in the midst of a pandemic to choose new representatives. The Melaka polls did not happen because the mandate had naturally lapsed or an elected representative died, but because certain assemblymen changed their allegiance. Over the past few years, the same situation has repeated itself, triggering other elections and changes of governments.

The prevalence of party hopping not only destabilises politics, creates uncertainty and impairs governance but, most importantly, it also undermines the rights of voters and erodes democracy.

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In September, former Dewan Rakyat deputy speaker and Umno MP Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said, fed up with “political frogs”, took matters into her hands and submitted a notice of motion to Dewan Rakyat Speaker Datuk Azhar Azizan Harun. The notice was to table a Recall Bill titled “Sacking of Members of Parlia-ment Bill 2021”, in which MPs will be held accountable for party-hopping.

Shortly after, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob announced that the Cabinet has agreed to introduce a Bill against party-hopping, in addition to several other parliamentary reforms, with the proposed laws to be tabled at the first meeting of Parliament next year. Following the announcement, Azalina urged the government to fast track and include her Recall Bill as part of its proposed anti-hopping law.

Similarly, MCA is in the midst of drafting a House Of Represen-tatives Recall Bill to make MPs more accountable by targeting those who have committed misdemeanours or who have defected from their parties.

The longer we wait, the more we put ourselves at risk of disruption from party-hopping. What can we do to tackle this problem, and what kind of policies are needed?

Azalina: 'The political will we need is actually political wisdom – if you are a serious party or a serious politician, you don’t want to buy other parties’ MPs because soon it might be your own MPs who are on sale.'Azalina: 'The political will we need is actually political wisdom – if you are a serious party or a serious politician, you don’t want to buy other parties’ MPs because soon it might be your own MPs who are on sale.'

Building political will

The biggest hurdle faced by those advocating anti-hopping legislation is creating enough political support for it. However, for politicians who are waiting for a good “price” to sell themselves, no anti-hopping or recall law can convince them, says Azalina in a recent interview with Sunday Star.

“We are not counting on them. We are counting on parties that have suffered from party-hopping, recently or in the past: Umno, PKR, DAP, PAS and Gabungan Parti Sarawak,” she says.

“The political will we need is actually political wisdom – if you are a serious party or a serious politician, you don’t want to buy other parties’ MPs because soon it might be your own MPs who are on sale.”

AHL vs Recall Bill

The major difference between conventional anti-hopping laws (AHL) and Azalina’s proposed Recall Bill is that the power to decide on the seat vacancy rests with voters.

In Azalina’s Bill, once an MP jumps parties, voters may initiate a dismissal proposal against him/her. Once the proposal has the support of at least 1% of the constituency’s electorate, the Election Commission will then hold a petition among voters to decide whether an elected representative should be replaced. If the petition to remove the MP is supported by more than 40% of the area’s voters, or alternatively half the number of voters in the last election, a recall election will be triggered.

One important factor in Azalina’s Recall Bill is that in addition to party resignations, those who are expelled from their parties must also be subjected to the proposed recall law. She argues that if party expulsion is excluded from the definition of “party hopping”, the whole anti-hopping mechanism, no matter whether conventional AHL or recall, will become ineffective.

“This is because the ‘betrayers’ may always vote or act for the enemy but still remain in the party, waiting for the party to sack them so that they can evade any anti-hopping penalties,” she explains.

Azalina points out that there are occasions when an MP may have to oppose his/her own party for acting against the interests of the nation, voters or even itself. There are also instances when party leadership may sack MPs who are rivals, dissidents or mavericks to uphold the leadership’s own vested interests.

An issue with AHL is that a party leader can effectively sack an MP from the House by first sacking him/her from the party.

“The party leader may abuse this power to demand blind loyalty from all MPs. This can easily make the party an echo chamber. MPs, the voting machine of the party, and the entire Parliament could become a rubber stamp for the executive if the government controls a solid majority,” she explains.

“With AHL, we will never get to develop the political culture of backbench revolts, when government backbenchers vote against their government’s Bill based on conscience, an important check and balance tool against executive dominance.”

A recall law will produce a very different scenario, Azalina says.

“A party may still enforce discipline and its MPs may still be sacked due to their differences with party leadership. However, the MP’s seat will be retained as long as the MP’s decision is in line with the voters’ mandate. This is because the ultimate decision maker is the voters,” she explains.

In Azalina’s Recall Bill, if an MP is confident that he/she has the support of his/her electorate, the MP need not fear losing his/her seat. This allows more accountability to voters and allows MPs to speak against party leaders if necessary.

“Under the proposed recall mechanism, if an MP votes against the party line and, due to this, is expelled from the party by party leaders, the MP does not lose their seat immediately.

“As long as their voting decision is based on public interest, the voters in their constituency will be the shield against the party’s unjustified sacking. Not only will the recall not pass, but the aggrieved MP can remain in their seat and the party’s good name will be damaged.

“What we want to prohibit is unjustified party-hopping driven by naked self-interest. A conventional AHL is a weapon against all types of party-hopping, even when some of it is for good reasons. The proposed Recall Bill will be the weapon against party-hopping that fails to get blessings of constituents.”

In Azalina’s Recall Bill, if an MP is confident that he/she has the support of his/her electorate, the MP need not fear losing his/her seat. — Photos: FilepicsIn Azalina’s Recall Bill, if an MP is confident that he/she has the support of his/her electorate, the MP need not fear losing his/her seat. — Photos: Filepics

MPs or assemblymen?

The Bill submitted by Azalina mainly applies to parliamentarians. This is because a state constitutional amendment is required to make state assemblymen subject to recall. This would be under the jurisdiction of each state legislative assembly, as the qualification, disqualification and tenure of assemblymen are provided for in the different state Constitutions.

“However, in my private Bill, there is an application clause (section 2) which allows any state legislature to adopt a recall mechanism if they want to.

“If my Bill becomes law, any state assembly just needs to adopt the law with some necessary modifications for its application at the state level,” says Azalina, who encourages all states to support the Bill to be made a federal law, and adopt it accordingly afterwards.

“Under the spirit of federalism, each state should have the autonomy to decide whether it wants to implement a recall mechanism or not, and if yes, which version – mine or some other variant.

“That should be left to the wisdom of every state in assessing its needs and the aspiration of its voters,” says Azalina.

After submitting a notice to table her Bill in September, Azalina was informed that it did not get priority for first reading in this Parlia-mentary session.

Moving forward, Azalina plans to submit a revised Bill, provi-sionally titled the Regulation of Party-Hopping and Political Accountability Bill 2021, with a stronger emphasis on party-hopping and a simpler operation than her earlier Private Member’s Bill.

“I cannot force the government to adopt my new Bill. I will instead explain to all Malaysians, including Melakan voters, why this Bill is what Malaysia needs. If the majority of Malaysians want it, then any government will want to introduce it.”

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