Don’t voters have a say if MPs jump from one party to another?
AS 16 Sept 2008 looms ever nearer, this seems to be the main question on all minds: will the current government be toppled?
Investors, business managers, civil society, politicians, and Malaysians at large are understandably concerned over the increasingly tense political situation unfolding, each for his or her respective reasons.
Opposition leader and former deputy prime minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, who leads the Pakatan Rakyat, has set himself a deadline of 16 Sept (also Malaysia Day) to take over the federal government. To do this, he will need a minimum of 31 Members of Parliament (MPs) to cross over from the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, forming a simple majority.
However, even Anwar has indicated that his plans for 16 Sept probably need to be postponed, “due to anticipated problems delaying the transition of power” (The Star, Wednesday, 10 Sept 2008).
Ribbit (© Leonardo Barbosa / sxc.hu)Over and above the question of “will it happen”, the more important question Malaysians are asking themselves is whether or not this is a desirable act in itself. There have been numerous arguments for and against the “jump”, and the consequent effects of taking over government in this manner. It is worth exploring each of these arguments on either side.
First, a fairly strong argument used against the Pakatan Rakyat’s plan is that it is unethical for defectors to jump in large enough numbers and form a new government. These MPs were originally elected on the BN platform; they would therefore need re-validation from their voters after choosing to switch allegiances. A re-election process would be ideal in legitimising their positions as elected representatives.
Second, the method by which a new government is formed may not cure the country of its many ills. Assuming that public sentiment is largely against Umno because of its corrupt practices, and that a large number of party hoppers would be made out of Umno members, then the danger is that a post-crossover Pakatan Rakyat would be made out of “Umno in Pakatan Rakyat”. In other words, individuals who would not necessarily subscribe to the ideals of the Pakatan Rakyat and still possess their old corrupt ways and other bad habits.
Third, the incentive for which MPs are changing sides stems hardly from noble intentions, but instead from a desire for power and position. One wonders if any of the potential hoppers have thoroughly examined the detailed Pakatan Rakyat manifesto for themselves, or know the nature of its policies.
This creates a vulnerable situation, since powers are likely to shift either way during uncertain periods. Defectors are likely to jump back to whence they came should the power struggle lean in that direction at any point in the future. This is especially since new negotiations are at this time emerging with Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad rejoining Umno, and his support of Tan Sri Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah and Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin as potential party leaders.
Fourth, many analysts argue that the Pakatan Rakyat’s focus should be on governing its five states well, at the same time proving its worth in governing at federal level. If state-level institutions can be strengthened and transformed satisfactorily, this augurs well for the Pakatan Rakyat to be elected into federal government when Malaysia next goes to the ballot box.
To counter the above points, Pakatan Rakyat members are first likely to argue the futility of ethics and morality at present, since the BN is not playing on a level playing field to begin with.
Its practices of gerrymandering, leading to unfair electoral outcomes, playing dirty political games, using public funds as clear-cut bribery, etc. make the BN government illegitimate anyway, it is said.
(© svilen001 / sxc.hu)Second, it is a matter of momentum for the Pakatan Rakyat. Anwar’s sodomy trial and the passage of the DNA Bill are creeping closer, and although these are unlikely to be resolved immediately, it may eventually lead to the courts pushing him towards prosecution. Since it is a race against time, it is in the Pakatan Rakyat’s best interest to obtain power prior to any potential meddling in Anwar’s case.
Third, the Pakatan Rakyat argues that there is little time to lose, seeing as the country is currently on a downward spiral, with RM125 billion of investors’ funds extracted from Malaysia within the first half of 2008, a largely criticised Budget with little positive implications on the investment market, and a potential stagflation and economic slowdown.
Coupled with the steadily weakening institutions and poor governance of policies (not to mention bad policies themselves), it is of great urgency to instate a new government for the national interest at large.
Idealists vs pragmatists
The manner in which one responds to the above arguments depends very much on one’s personal ethos. Critics of the big “jump” and new government are likely to be idealists; supporters are likely to be pragmatists.
An idealist is likely to consider that the ends should never justify the means. If the unscrupulous methods by which power is seized are in fact morally indistinguishable from the very same unscrupulous corrupt practices of the BN, how different then would the Pakatan Rakyat be? It is better for the Pakatan Rakyat to begin from the moral high ground against all odds — holding true to its squeaky-clean position — than to start off on the wrong footing.
Nevertheless, this line of contention is based on the assumption that Malaysia is indeed a democratic state — hence, every action must be scrutinised against the highest of all “standards of democracy”, and that indeed democracy takes precedence over all.
The reality is that Malaysia is not a full democracy, and it arguably never has been. As in most situations in politics, it is rarely easy to pinpoint a clear right from a clear wrong. And so, it is unfortunate that it is within this grey muck of shifting ideals that politicians have to make the most reasonable decision, weighing options and selecting the most optimal, for the greater good. This is realpolitik.
Having laid these out, the ideal outcome should sufficient parliamentarians jump over to the Pakatan Rakyat is for a fresh mandate to be assured through a re-election. Yet there is no law against party hopping, and hence, forming a new government through these means would still be considered right in the eyes of the law, theoretically speaking.
In this case, the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong should either call for snap general elections just prior to the Pakatan Rakyat taking power; or if it does form the new government, to lay out immediate plans for the same snap elections.
In line with this very argument, PKR vice-president R Sivarasa made assurances that fresh elections would be held within six months to a year of the alliance gaining control of Parliament, according to a Malaysiakini report on 11 Sept 2008. This commitment is to allay fears that the government takeover is unethical or undemocratic — and certainly a necessary step that must be adhered to as soon as possible. It was also stated that a fair and clean elections would be conducted in this fresh round.
(© Ross Parker / sxc.hu)Ultimately, it is true that many are increasingly exasperated with the current government’s lack of leadership, which is detrimental to our socio-economic fabric. However, some semblance of justice, ethics and conscience still ignites the hearts of Malaysians, and it is ironically this that tipped the balance of power on 8 March 2008. If it is truly about “people’s power”, then we must ensure that any shift or change in government is one that is equally validated by the people. Otherwise we have to be satisfied with a less-than-ideal outcome.
This recent pledge taken by the Pakatan Rakyat to conduct fresh elections is welcome, and should be followed through upon. In fact, it would even bolster greater support for them, should the mandate be overwhelmingly affirmed. Rest assured, the democracy that citizens have merely tasted the beginnings of since March will be duly and fully claimed.
Tricia Yeoh is the director of the Centre for Public Policy Studies. She tries to be both a pragmatic and idealistic commentator.