How to stop party hopping


  • All the pieces matter
  • Friday, 31 Jul 2020

YOU can’t.

Well, to be more specific: there isn’t any method that is guaranteed to stop it.

As far as I understand it, within our current legal framework, there's almost no way to prevent the scourge of party hopping that led to things like the Sheraton Move and the recent collapse of the Sabah state government.

There are many innovative ideas floating around.

One of the more promising ones emerged from civil society recently, basically centred on the idea of a recall law, which would allow voters to demand a by-election, especially in cases where their elected representative has changed his or her political allegiance.

Many good friends of mine are very keen on this idea, and I don't have major objections to it.

In the case of Sabah, the defections have triggered the dissolution of the state assembly and statewide elections.

This of course is technically fair enough, as in theory it gives voters the chance to choose their government.

Within the context of a Westminster system however, do fresh elections guarantee a solution to the problem?

An instructive example comes from the actual city of Westminster, which was embroiled in the Brexit controversy for about half a decade.

Then British Prime Minister Theresa May called for a snap election in 2017 in the hopes of strengthening her position and getting a stronger mandate to handle Brexit.

What she got was the opposite, and the hung parliament that resulted threw the United Kingdom into more years of dithering over Brexit, further miring the entire nation in a political crisis.

The 2019 UK general election were “luckily” more decisive, but in theory, the end result could have been just as deadlocked as the 2017 election.

In the same way, state elections in Sabah may indicate a clear winner with a strong majority.

But what if it doesn't? What if the next Sabah state assembly is as equally fractured as it is now?

I regretfully don't have the best answers for what should happen in Sabah now. Things are unravelling too fast, for one thing.

I come back once again to Belgian author David van Reybrouck's idea that this notion of more elections equating to more democracy is relatively new in the grand scheme of human history, and may in fact result in us getting further away from genuine democratic ideals, rather than helping us achieve them.

Even without the Covid-19 pandemic, which makes having elections and campaigns an unmitigated public health disaster, it is likely extremely impractical at this rate to call for snap elections every time there is a crisis like the Sheraton Move or what happened in Sabah.

In the long term, we should look seriously at allowing governments to change in this manner.

While it is perfectly legal in our Westminster system, that does not make it right. And when the system “legalises” things that are not right, then it is high time to change the system.

This is obviously easier said than done. Changes like these generally require things like a two thirds’ majority in Parliament.

In the shorter term, what we would all love to see, of course, is a little more moral backbone in our elected representatives.

This is even easier said than done, with millions and millions allegedly being dangled as inducements.

How do you select candidates who are able to resist such temptations?

I'd probably be RM32mil richer myself if I had a foolproof answer to that question. I don’t, obviously.

But just because 100% foolproof answers aren't immediately available in front of us, doesn't mean we shouldn’t be working towards one – or at least one that is 95% foolproof.

In this particular case, my personal view differs slightly from those who look at larger, more institutional changes such as necessitating more elections and by-elections.

To be clear, I believe that institutional solutions are the only real long term solutions, and that a democratic mandate from the rakyat is deeply sacred. The more the rakyat are involved as decision makers, the better.

That said, again, I have a strong feeling that more and more elections (especially with the endless polarisation and mudslinging in elections and political campaigns as we currently know them) are not the answer.

My approach would be a little more radical and unusual.

I think the immediate solution is more within reach, compared with institutional solutions that in any case require a great deal of time and political will.

I think we should focus on how we choose candidates for elections.

The “we” here is more meaningful than it may initially appear. I don’t believe we should focus on how political parties choose candidates.

I think that our political parties have always chosen candidates based on certain criteria, and in adherence to certain vested interests.

I believe that the quality of elected representatives we have is a direct result and reflection of those vested interests.

Only people who are “valuable” to their political masters are chosen as candidates by political parties, and for the most part, the qualities that make a person valuable to his or her political master are not the same qualities that make them a good elected representative.

I don’t have any real hope that our political parties can change the way they choose candidates and alter their incentive structures significantly. If I did, I would be in one of those parties, trying to do exactly that.

If we want candidates selected on a completely different basis, then we will need a democratic movement that is outside the current political ecosystem to be the one doing the selecting.

Only a new democratic movement that has completely broken away from old politics can innovate and pioneer new incentive structures, and thus have completely different criteria for selecting candidates for elections.

A complete break from old politics will allow us to use things like a demonstrated track record of service and a proven moral backbone as criteria for selecting candidates. It will allow us to choose from pools of individuals who are usually almost never selected to be candidates, such as those toiling quietly day and night for the good of the rakyat with no fame or fortune as payment.

Once again, I can’t pretend that even the best idea in this vein will produce candidates that are able to resist bribes to switch allegiances.

I am very optimistic, however, that a new democratic movement would on average produce many more candidates who are generally much more resistant to such inducements.

I am enough of a realist not to promise much more beyond that. We will only know whether we ourselves will pass our own baptism of fire if and when that fire falls upon us.

Until then, it is hubris to say, “I can never be bought”. We must be humble in the face of our weaknesses and challenges.

Such humility will be key, if we really do take the leap, and start working on a democratic movement that will produce an entirely new breed of leaders.

It’s hard work, and is appropriate to remember in conjunction with Hari Raya Haji, will require an immense amount of sacrifice.

Some of us are betting it’ll be worth it though. And when the time comes, we hope we won’t be alone.

NATHANIEL TAN works with Projek Wawasan Rakyat (POWR). He wishes everyone Selamat Hari Raya Haji, and can be reached at nat@engage.my.

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