Corrected at 4:25pm, 4 Nov 2009
THERE are those who cheered for Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s now infamous 16 September 2008 plot to take over the federal government by defections. There are also those who initially cheered the 10-day defection of Datuk Nasarudin Hashim (state assemblyperson for Bota, Perak) from Umno to Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR). But do these people now have the moral high standing to condemn the quitting of Port Klang state assemblyperson Badrul Hisham Abdullah from PKR to become a BN-friendly independent?
While some will try to argue that some defections are more moral than others, the truth is that defection remains defection.
At one level, every citizen — including lawmakers — must be allowed to freely associate and disassociate themselves with any organisation. Therefore defence for defection on the grounds of freedom of association is simply a red herring.
Does the seat belong to the representative?
The real question at another level is: Can a lawmaker carry his or her mandate to a new political party? By analogy, if you decide to leave one street dance party for another party, can you carry the seat you were sitting on with you? Not unless the chair belongs to you.
Does a legislative seat — and the mandate it carries — then belong to a political party or the elected representative?
The answer really depends on the electoral system. If you are elected under the “closed party list proportional representation” electoral system, the seat is undoubtedly your party’s and you should be disqualified the moment you quit the party.
For our first-past-the-post electoral system, even the political scientists are somewhat divided. Some believe that voters vote for candidates while others think that the votes are heavily driven by party labels.
What to do when you are in doubt? Ask the voters.
That’s why Datuk Shahrir Samad resigned as an Umno parliamentarian and recontested as an independent candidate for the Johor Baru parliamentary seat in 1988. This was when those seen to be aligned with Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah and Tun Musa Hitam were excluded from Umno Baru by former Prime Minister and Umno president Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
Shahrir SamadBut Shahrir would be the last one to be allowed to resign and re-contest. After him, and really because of him, Article 48(6) of the Federal Constitution was added to disqualify a parliamentarian from re-contesting for five years if he or she were to resign.
Similar obstacles exist at the state level. In Selangor, Article 64(5) of the state constitution now has the same effect on Badrul Hisham. The three BN-friendly “independents” in Perak too are similarly constrained by the state constitution’s Article 31(5).
If Article 64(5) of the Selangor constitution is not removed, insisting that Badrul Hisham resigns is in fact penalising his freedom of association.
But beyond removing the anti-reelection clauses, what options are available when a lawmaker changes his or her party affiliation?
Not doing anything, which is the status quo now, means that the lawmaker is allowed to treat his or her mandate as private property which may be easily sold or pledged for personal benefit.
The other extreme is the so-called anti-hopping law, which forces automatic by-elections. This means the party leadership would be given tremendous power to discipline its lawmakers. And so, unless they are confident of overwhelming public support, lawmakers may simply toe the party’s line to avoid being sacked.
A more ideal solution is perhaps to give the power to neither the elected representatives nor the party leadership, but to the electorate instead. After all, if the voters want the elected representative to go against his or her own party, why should he or she not follow the voters’ desires?
Recall elections 101
Recall elections are a viable alternative to anti-hopping laws (© vancity197 / sxc.hu)
Recall elections, common in the US, allow voters to remove an elected representative before his or her term in office expires. Not limited to defection, this form of direct democracy allows voters to sack any representative who misbehaves or simply underperforms.
In California, to recall a statewide public office holder like the governor requires only an initial petition by as many voters as 12% of those who voted in the last election for that office.
If a recall election is held, voters will be asked to cast two ballots at once. The first would be to decide whether the incumbent should be recalled, and the second to determine his or her successor from a list of new contenders should the incumbent be recalled.
(© Nate Mandos / Wiki Commons)In 2003, former Democratic Governor Gray Davis, blamed for a financial crisis and electricity woes, was recalled and Arnold Schwarzenegger was voted in. A bare 1.3 million voters who signed the petition — making up less than 10% of the total registered electorate — made that possible.
The threshold to recall a politician of course can be made higher to check the threatening or blackmailing power of a concentrated minority.
(Corrected) In British Columbia, Canada, the only jurisdiction in the Commonwealth which allows recall elections, the threshold is 40% of the registered electorate. Unlike in California, only when the recall motion is passed will a by-election be held later on. To date, the best result in a demand for a recall was 34% of the electorate, hence no recall election has been held.
If Malaysians want to stop party hopping, a clear option is to have recall elections with a reasonable threshold. This could be set at say 40% of the voters, not the registered electorate, in the last election.
Is the Pakatan Rakyat serious?
So, if Pakatan Rakyat (PR) is serious and sincere about political integrity, this is what they should do: propose an amendment to the state constitution to remove Article 64(5) — the anti-reelection clause — and introduce recall elections.
If this is passed in Selangor, it would create pressure for other state legislatures and Parliament to follow suit. Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s 1Malaysia would be put under a real test on integrity. Lawmakers such as Kinabatangan Member of Parliament Datuk Bung Mokhtar Radin, of “bocor” fame, would have to check their tongues before speaking.
Now, wouldn’t Barisan Nasional legislators defeat the amendment as the PR does not control the two-thirds majority in the house? Well, let them do it, and let the voters decide on their fate come the next elections.
And the PR does have a two-thirds majority in the Penang and Kelantan state assemblies. So, these states can set successful examples even if Selangor fails. Pressure would then certainly be mounted for the same to happen in Perak where defections have sunken the state into chaos.
If the PR, however, refuses to be different from its opponents, as has become apparent with their non-introduction of local government elections, they should stop complaining and protesting. We are sick of all politicians who break promises and betray our trust, not only Badrul Hisham.
A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat is based in Monash University Sunway Campus. He believes that if the Pakatan Rakyat refuses to offer a different Malaysia from Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s authoritarian-centrist 1Malaysia, then a two-party system is just like having Tweedledee and Tweedledum.
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