To hop or not?

Minister in the Prime Minister's Department (Parliament and Law) Datuk Seri Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar, said that 39 Members of Parliament had switched sides since the 14th General Election. This translates into roughly 20% of MPs defecting, which does not augur well for our democracy.

Further, despite Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) secretary-general Datuk Seri Hamzah Zainuddin and

Lahad Datu MP Datuk Mohamaddin Ketapi (also in Bersatu) saying party hopping is a normal occurrence in a democracy but the integrity and stability of our democratic system of government rest upon MPs sticking with the party they represented in the election.

GC Malhotra, former Secretary-General of the Lok Sabha (India’s lower house of Parliament), in his book entitled, “Anti-Defection Law in India and the Commonwealth,” published in 2005, conducted a thorough analysis of anti-hopping or anti-defection laws in the Commonwealth.

Here are some interesting statistics:

41 countries have anti-hopping laws; and

8 countries have anti-hopping provisions in their written Constitutions, including Nepal, Seychelles, Nigeria, Namibia and Singapore

According to Kenneth Janda from Northwestern University in the United States, politicians switch parties because: “... parliamentary research recognized long ago that personal incentives motivated the votes of legislative deputies. Deputies usually derive value from supporting their parties, but sometimes that incentive is weak. The link between personal advancement and party loyalty is strongest within established and stable parliamentary party systems, and weakest within new and volatile party systems.”

Party-hopping is seen as being immoral and regressive. Party-hopping can also be bad for the economy because investors do not want to do business in a country where elected representatives can switch sides and change the government wantonly. Party-hopping lessens people’s faith in politics and politicians.

However, on the flip side, at times, political parties may take decisions that an MP or state assembly member decides to be contrary to his or her values and principles and resigns from the party. The party labels the resigning member a party hopper, and he or she loses his seat in Parliament despite standing firm on principle.

Is party hopping or defections confined to weak and emerging democracies? The simple answer is no. Even established democracies like the United States, Italy and France have seen party defections however it is a rare occurrence.

So, these competing interests underpin the entire challenge in defining what constitutes party-hopping?

However, before we even go there, the political somersaults that have occurred since Pakatan Harapan’s win in the last general election remind us that our leaders need to grow up.

It is quite pointless to have elections and proceed to have a change in government halfway through defections because party leaders cannot get along and elected representatives switch sides and the government changes. Such occurrences are an insult to the political process and representative democracy.

That being the case, we must understand that our MPs and state assemblymen are all mere mortals with human frailties. Some will hop for positions, some will hop for allocation, and some will hop on principle. But with 20% of MPs switching sides during this current Dewan Rakyat's life, we need laws to combat defections.

Defining party-hopping or defection is not an easy task. If party barons decide what constitutes party hopping, then MPs will be indebted to them. If the Speaker decides what constitutes party hopping, those who cross to the ruling party will benefit. If the Election Commission decides what constitutes party hopping, it will become a power unto itself.

Further, defining party hopping is only one side of the coin, and the other side is having a mechanism to deal with party hoppers?

Also, are individual defectors to be dealt with differently from a party that defects from a coalition? And is it even possible to cater for the latter scenario?

MCA secretary-general Datuk Chong Sin Woon rightly pointed out the current definition of party-hopping is too wide and gives too much power to party leaders. He suggests, and I agree, that there must be a recall scenario so that MPs who defect can go back to the people and offer themselves for re-election.

This is my proposal.

First, a seat of MP becomes vacant if he ceases to be a member of the political party for which he stood in the general election. It is uncontroversial and clear. If an MP voluntarily resigns the party's membership, he loses his seat. I shall call this scenario A.

Second, if an MP is expelled from his party, he or she loses his seat; however, he or she must be allowed to re-contest in a by-election. It caters for situations where an MP is expelled because the party asks him or her to do something he or she feels is against his principles, and is subsequently expelled. To be fair, the MP must be allowed to take their case to the electors. I shall call this scenario B.

How does the process work?

In Scenario A, the resigning MP must inform the Speaker of his resignation from the political party. The Speaker then informs the Election Commission that the seat is vacant for a by-election to be called. The resigning former MP must not be allowed to contest as he voluntarily vacated his seat.

In scenario B, the President or Secretary-General of the political party must inform the Speaker that the MP has been expelled from the party. The Speaker then informs the Election Commission that the seat is vacant for a by-election to be called. The expelled former MP can contest the by-election as he vacated his seat involuntarily.

What then about political parties leaving their coalition? I think herein lies the biggest problem. But we must accept that MPs are elected first past the post. There is no party list in Malaysia, unlike in Germany or New Zealand.

My proposal may be imperfect but workable.

For example, if Party A leaves Barisan Nasional, what happens?

Because all the MPs of Party A were elected using the Barisan logo, then Scenario A applies as they are considered to have resigned from Barisan.

If party B is expelled from Barisan, what happens? Using the same principle, then Scenario B applies as it is to be considered that all the MPs have been expelled from Barisan.

What happens to Party C that joins Barisan after the election but leaves or is expelled? My answer is nothing because Any pre-electoral pact does not bind Party C, and its MPs were not elected using the Barisan's logo. This may encourage parties to use their logos in elections, but legislation cannot cure every problem; what it can do is cure most of it.

Lastly, what about independent MPs? I believe that party-hopping legislation should not affect them unless they join a political party after the election.

I sincerely do hope our MPs work hard in the coming special session of Parliament and enact some form of party-hopping legislation because there must be consequences before any MP or state assembly member decides to hop or not.

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Ivanpal Singh Grewal

Ivanpal Singh Grewal

Ivanpal Singh Grewal is an Advocate & Solicitor. He was formerly Political Secretary to the Minister of Plantation Industries & Commodities.


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