Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Is party hopping democratic..?

Dilemma over defections

The political impasse in Perak may have been resolved but it has sparked fears of similar crises in other states and raised questions on the purpose of voting. HOIST on his own petard. That is the saying that comes to mind with the recent political developments in Perak. PKR leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim has been “caught in his own trap, involved in the danger he meant for others”. The Brewer definition of this phrase could not be more apt.

What Anwar protractedly and publicly dangled – a crossover of Barisan MPs from Sabah to the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) alliance – after the March 8 elections came to nought. But the Barisan, using the same plot and with great stealth, took hold of the Perak state government in the blink of eye. It has certainly been an eventful week for the state that is celebrating its Ruler’s silver jubilee. Ibrahim: ‘When there is a defection, the people feel cheated to a certain degree’ In that short time, the nation witnessed the fall of the PR Government when three elected PR representatives quit their respective political parties to be Independents “friendly” to Barisan. Party-hopping is by no means a new phenomenon in Malaysia as political defections have been witnessed in Sarawak, Kelantan and Sabah over the years with state governments switching hands as a result.

But should elected representatives be allowed to defect or hop to another party? This question is on the lips of many now and then – in the wake of the shocking March 8 general election – when almost immediately, talk of party-hopping and change of party alliances had been rife. Defections are not seen in a sympathetic light by voters. Merdeka Centre’s programme director Ibrahim Suffian says based on feedback the centre has received, most Malaysians – 60-80% of voters – vote for a political party rather than the candidate.

“When there is a defection, the people feel cheated to a certain degree. The majority would be upset, especially if they had voted for that person (involved in the defection). “At the recent Kuala Terengganu by-election, for example, we asked people what the important criteria was for them when voting. Most of them said they looked at the party’s policy and leadership rather than the candidate.” Tanvir Singh, a voter, couldn’t agree more with him. “When we make our selection, the choice is based on the party logo or name, not the candidate’s name or face,” he says.

This accounts for so many unknowns with little or no track record securing seats in the last election. Ibrahim shares that the candidate as a personality would carry more weight with voters who are less ideological or are undecided. “After all, in an election, most people would not know enough about the new candidates but they would know what the party stands for,” says Ibrahim.

Review laws
According to Syed Jamaluddin Syed Noh, acting chairman of election watchdog Malaysians for Free Elections (Mafrel), legally, the people have no say in this matter. “The people have to live with the decision because in this situation, the provision that a government can be formed with a simple majority applies.” It has definitely upset those who voted for PR, making them feel frustrated or betrayed but by law, the decision stands and people have to accept it,” he says.
All that the rakyat (public) can do for now, he says, is to mark it as a lesson learnt and exercise their right to vote carefully in the next elections.

Tunku Abdul Aziz: Was against Anwar’s plans for cross over from the start.
“That is why from day one, Mafrel has pushed for electoral reforms to make the system more democratic. “Our current system may be conducive to defections and buyouts; it is not healthy, so we need to look at how they can be deterred. We also need to review the procedures and processes as well as some legal aspects in our system.” He says another protection for voters is to enact an anti-hopping law.

“If we are going to have all this wheeling and dealing from both sides, we need to enforce a law that can guarantee political stability for the people,” he adds. Former de-facto law minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, a strong advocate of anti-hopping legislation, shares that when he proposed it last March, it was poorly received by parliamentarians from both sides of the political divide. “I know how politicians will be tempted to switch parties by inducement, so that’s why I proposed the anti-hopping law, but no one was interested. I did not get enough support from either side, probably at that time they felt that it would be more beneficial for them not to have such a law. Among the leaders, I remember only Karpal Singh and (Datuk) Nik Aziz supported me.”

One argument that has been used against the anti-hopping law is its contradiction to one’s freedom of association as enshrined in the Federal Constitution; in 1992, the High Court even declared a state anti-hop law unconstitutional on that basis. As Umno’s official lawyer Hafarizam Harun argues, although elected representatives are accountable to their constituents, they also need to stay true to their personal conscience. “When you go into the assembly, you don’t only represent the party and the people, you also represent yourself. So, while we take note of people’s sentiments, we cannot deprive the elected state representatives of their right to freedom of association. I believe that it is the right of the state assemblymen to switch parties if they want to,” he opines.

He says the Perak state representatives did not switch parties but instead declared independence from their old parties. “Then in this case, it is slightly different; you cannot argue that they were immoral or unethical,” he argues, rubbishing allegations that they were induced to leave their respective parties. “How can you say they were given inducements? They did not join BN. If they had joined BN, then it might have been a different matter,” he says. Zaid however strongly believes that Malaysian democracy has not reached the necessary level of maturity to be without an anti-hopping law. “Party-hopping has been a common practice in Malaysia for so long and we cannot guarantee that our candidates have sufficient education or the character and integrity not to be tempted by inducements. “It is different in a mature democracy, you don’t need such a law because you can be confident that we can trust the candidates and their personal conscience and know that they will not easily hop parties when induced with lots of money or other rewards.”He argues that sacrificing such personal freedom is a necessary evil for the country to attain political stability. “No law is perfect, so you have to see which difficult issues you want to address. If it is for political stability, then I think we can sacrifice this personal freedom. And we have done this before – we have restrictions on the freedom of assembly because we want to have public order. We can do it if there is political will for reform,” adds Zaid.

DAP vice-chairman Tunku Abdul Aziz is another personality who has always supported such legislation. He shares that he was against Anwar’s plans for crossing over from the start. “I made my position clear when Anwar Ibrahim started the talk about people crossing over to Pakatan Rakyat. I believe that it is unethical. Secondly, people elected on a certain party ticket owe it to the people who put them there and the party of which they are members,” he says.

Stressing that ethics and moral principles should be observed or the political situation would descend into chaos, as what happened in Sabah in 1994, Abdul Aziz nonetheless concedes that the crux of the problem is that “the concept of morality simply does not work in our political arena.” PKR vice-president R. Sivarasa, however, is not fully against party-hopping. He explains that in the Malaysian context, politicians have no other choice, due to the addition of Article 48(6) into the Federal Constitution in the 1980s, which states that a person who has resigned from the House of Representatives would be barred from taking office for five years.

Double oppression
The Article is believed to have been introduced to deal with the situation of Datuk Shahrir Samad who resigned as an Umno MP but won the subsequent by-election as an independent candidate in 1988. “In other countries where true democracy is held, they will resign from their seat because it was the ethical thing to do. But here, if say you don’t identify with your party and have to cross, it is unavoidable (to hop),” he says. Sivarasa says he opposes the introduction of the anti-hopping law without the removal of the particular clause in the Federal Constitution because it is akin to double oppression. Constitutional law expert Prof Shad Saleem Faruqi meanwhile believes that there are various ways to enact the anti-hopping law without compromising personal liberties.

As he had written in The Star last year, one way of enacting a federal law against defection is by enacting constitutional amendments to the Article 10(2)(c) (freedom of association) and Article 48 (disqualification for membership of Parliament). He also highlighted that party-hopping can cause political instability and collapse of the duly elected government of the day. When interviewed recently on the Perak crisis, he says: “Party-hopping is a despicable activity no matter which party does it. Not only does it bring shame to the political process, it is also a bad way to form a government. It will be a bad precedent if a government is formed by relying on support by defectors.”

»Party hopping is a despicable activity no matter which party does it. Not only does it bring shame to the political process, it is also a bad way to form a government« PROF SHAD SALEEM FARUQI Prof Shad Saleem says he personally favoured a dissolution to let the people decide but concedes that the move would involve a substantial amount of expenditure and disruption at the expense of the people, which he is confident the Sultan had taken into account when making his decision. However, he warns that in the long run, appointing a new government without dissolution will have an adverse impact on the parties involved. “I say with sadness that if a new government is appointed without a dissolution, the new government will win the battle but in the long run, will lose the war as the people will not forgive or forget. “A government that comes to power by wheeling and dealing leaves a bad taste in the mouth. The democratic thing to do is to go back to the people,” he adds.

Where you can or can’t hop
- There are no anti-defection provisions in the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, United States or in one of the long established European democracies. Bolivia, Fiji, India, Namibia, Papua New Guinea, South Africa, Trinidad and Tobago, Vanuatu, Zambia and Zimbabwe have anti-defection laws. - In Germany, MPs do not have to resign from parliament if they leave their party. Germany has gone so far as to have written into its basic law that a member is responsible first and foremost to his or her conscience. - In Portugal, members resigning from their parties may remain as independents but cannot join other parties.

- Dr Ahmad Nidzamuddin, political science lecturer in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) says that Sri Lanka enacted a law in 1978 which required those who switched parties to step down from their seats, leaving them vacant until the next general election. Defections happen in UK but mainly on a matter of principle. For example, MP Paul Marsden quit the ruling Labour Party and joined the Liberal Democrats because he opposed the Afghanistan war in 2001.

Comment: Party hopping is legally accepted as pointed by Sivarasa but it is totally morally wrong!!! You denied wishes of the people voted for you. Muddle in Perak case should be blamed to the three frogs who opted to hop.

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