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Party time!

(Background image by Billy Alexander /

AFTER the crisis in Perak and with the upcoming Penanti by-election, the question we need to ask is, whom does a legislative seat “belong” to? The elected representative or the party s/he represents? More specifically, who did the electorate vote for?

If the electorate voted for the candidate, then the seat “belongs” to him/her; and s/he can then choose whether and when to relinquish it. If, instead, the electorate voted for the party, then the seat “belongs” to the party, and the elected representative cannot take the seat with him or her when leaving the party.

This, really, is the crux of whether we should have an anti-hopping law. But whether we should have such legislation may be answered by asking ourselves if we want stronger party systems in Malaysia.

Fusion of power

Before we go further, let us recognise that modern parliamentary democracies are quite different from what is commonly perceived of it.

First of all, separation of power — which exists meaningfully only under a presidential system — is actually a myth in parliamentary democracies. What we have in a parliamentary democracy is a fusion of power between the legislative and executive branches. Both these branches are the direct and indirect product of the same legislative elections.

Secondly, because both the legislative and executive branches share the same basis of popular mandate, check and balance is made possible by allowing each branch to threaten to terminate the other.

A parliament may pass a motion of no-confidence to bring down an administration. Whether or not voted out by the parliament, an administration can dissolve parliament to go to poll. If the hands of either parliament or the administration are tied, one branch will be overpowered by the other.

The ceremonial head of state may justifiably withhold his/her consent to dissolve parliament only if the request comes from a minority government. This is common in countries where the political forces are fragmented.

Fresh elections may not be necessary in such cases to update the mandate since voters may continue to vote the same way. The solution, therefore, is to look for a new prime minister who can form a new coalition to govern.

However, the entire idea of parliamentarianism would be subverted if the ceremonial head of state (whether a constitutional monarch or ceremonial president) mutates into an executive head (an absolute monarch or an executive president) by depriving a majority government’s option to dissolve parliament.

Thirdly, and most importantly, political parties are the mediator between the two branches. What we have are actually party governments, with little roles and room for individual parliamentarians to play.


Strong party system need

But today’s complicated world requires governments to do much more than when parliamentary governments were in their infancy and dominated by individual notables.

Compromises are needed between different groups on various issues in order for viable policy positions to materialise. Such tasks can only be carried out by political parties which are in fact coalitions of individuals and groups sharing a common goal.

Independent-minded parliamentarians who come and go and vote according to their idiosyncratic conscience cannot do the job.

Parties also provide institutional accountability which cannot be offered by individual politicians. It’s the difference between a corporate entity and a sole proprietorship.

So, how strong should the party system be?

A strong party system may prevent articulation of new issues and even obstruct the entry of new political forces into parliament and government. This is a common complaint by many proponents of direct and participatory democracy.

But a weak party system may spell more trouble. Instead of vigorous articulation of issues, its more common characteristics are personality cult and patronage.

Additionally, in a weak party system, elites are wont to switch alliances. When there are no binding ideologies — even communal ones like ethnonationalism or religion — to hold them accountable, elites in a weak party system would normally shy away from a transformative agenda. Instead, they would engage in material transaction with their followers, the most primitive form being the barter trade of votes for notes.

That’s what happens in the Philippines. It’s also what has largely happened among the Dayak since 1966, the Kadazandusun since 1994, and Indian Malaysians before 2007.

When you have a strong party system like in the UK, however, individual lawmakers who switch party allegiance, say from Conservative to Labour, can’t expect to gain on all fronts. This is because s/he can only win left-wing supporters by forgoing the support of right-wingers.

That’s why a parliamentarian treasures his/her party banner to the extent that they are willing to be bound by the “party whip”, and see expulsion from the party as punishment. Toeing the party line is like franchise fees paid to operate under a brand name.

In contrast, if the party system is weak, lawmakers may switch sides without having to worry about the voters’ wrath as long as their new political chief can supply more patronage for distribution. In other words, lawmakers whose support can be bought can, in return, buy support from voters.

List-PR elections

How strong is Malaysia’s party system? The proof of the pudding was evident when the re-elected Sabah government collapsed within a month because of the defection of 40% of its lawmakers in 1994.

How then do we remedy such political corruption and build a stronger party system?

The first way is to establish the convention that elections are always called whenever a majority government is toppled. The constitutional monarchs need to know their boundary. So, there is no two ways in Perak.

An alternative to work around the unconstitutionality of an “anti-hopping law” is to introduce recall elections where voter signatures can be collected to initiate an election to vote out an incompetent or rejected incumbent for whatever reason.

A more long-term solution is to officially introduce party-based representation such as Party-List Proportional Representation (List-PR). Constituencies would comprise multiple members; political parties would present their respective list of candidates in order of priority; voters would cast a vote for the party; and the seats would be allocated proportionally to the parties.

In this case, an elected representative can exercise his/her freedom of association but if s/he ceases to represent his/her party, the party’s next eligible candidate on the list will take over his/her seat. In this scenario, we would never have to worry about elected representatives auctioning their mandate.

We need not even abandon our existing electoral system to adopt a completely new one. We can follow New Zealand‘s example in creating List-PR seats in equal number with our conventional First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) seats.

New Zealand Parliament house (Source: Wikimedia commons)

Every voter would then have two ballots — one for the constituency representative and one for the party. The party votes would decide the total seats allocated to each party. For example, if the Green Party garners 30% of votes, it would be eligible for a total of 60 seats in a 200-seat parliament. If it has already secured 20 FPTP seats, the additional 40 seats it has secured would be allocated to its candidates on the Party List.

Hence, the system can even be designed such that if a party wins an extra FPTP constituency through defection, given the same party vote share, it may lose a compensating List-PR seat.

In this case, the frogs would be free to hop, but the people can continue having their choice of party represent them.

A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat is based in Monash University Sunway Campus. He believes that it is high time for Malaysia to explore alternative political institutions.

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4 Responses to “Party time!”

  1. D Lim says:

    Interestingly, the concept of minority parties and independents are becoming more popular in Australia. Why do voters vote for the minority parties/independents? Most do that to keep the very strong major parties on their toes or they believe independents can serve the electorate’s interests better. I really don’t think Malaysians are ready for such thinking and to top it all, there is no proper funding for the minorities/independents compared to Australia.

    We cannot avoid party-hopping in a democracy. Only the people can avoid that by punishing the incumbent at the next election. Someone who party-hops soon after an election is likely to be seen as ‘bought over’ if he/she does not justify his/her actions to the electorate. If politicians feel they no longer agree to the way a party is run, they should feel free to resign or change the party from within.

    We get what we vote for. Unfortunately, in less democratic and poorer societies, many are ignorant of their rights and games of politicians. Perhaps that’s the reason for the the vicious cycle of poverty and instability in some parts of the world. We can only blame ourselves if we are easily manipulated.

  2. chinhuatw says:

    By strong party system, I mean one that is consolidated with long-lasting party labels. Conceptually, a strong party system need not be one dominated by only larger parties.

    Changing from FPTP to the system in New Zealand (originated from Germany, called Mixed Member Proportional) will actually provide room for smaller parties – whether Socialist, Environmentalist, Feminist, or Libertarian – for they can win a seat even if their supporters are geographically scattered. In fact, these parties may be more ideological than mainstream catch-all parties.

    Why do we need stronger parties? Because given the level of socio-economic development, weak parties give way to patronage and money politics, not direct participation of empowered citizens.

    Another reason, when parties are more developed, it will be harder for anyone to restore or rebuild the one-coalition hegemony Razak established 40 years ago. Hence, a built-in guarantee for multi-party democracy and a safeguard against the revival of authoritarianism.

  3. Fikri Roslan says:

    I do not think we should propose a new system just because we are not happy with the outcome of a particular event. The Malay proverb “marahkan nyamok, kelambu dibakar” could well describe this situation. I agree with D Lim that maybe we are not yet ready for that system. After all, the current system has a lot of strength and advantage compared to propotional representation. I still need someone who knows about my area to represent my constituency in the state assembly and in parliament. If he [or she] is not good, then we choose other person in the next elections.

    I think we should not panic and use many unnecessary things to justify the change or to show unhappiness. I do not understand why the case of Perak being used on this. To me, it is just normal as the government lost the majority and needs to be replaced by a new one. More so when this government was a loose coalition of several parties of opposite idealogies and principles; the only thing that binds them together is to be in power. This is not good for the state of Perak.

  4. oster says:

    Separation of powers in Westminster systems are not complete myths.

    Ask Gordon Brown, who lost a vote over Gurkha settlement rights due to rebel Labour MPs just recently.

    But I completely agree with the mixed-member system adoption in Malaysia. Our electroral system drowns out too many dispersed voices.

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