Bersih: Time to empower voters to ‘recall’ party defectors

As the political drama unfolded on Feb 23 with the “Sheraton Move” that saw the eventual collapse of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government, elected less than two years ago at the 14th general election (GE14), Malaysians could only watch in horror, dismay and haplessness as the mandate given to PH was subverted by MPs from PKR and PPBM who joined hands with the opposition parties to form a new backdoor government under Muhyiddin Yassin.

The phenomenon of elected representatives crossing over to the opposition to collapse a government is not new in Malaysian politics, as witnessed in the Sabah and Perak state assemblies previously, but never at the federal level until now. This wave of defections has triggered the collapse of PH state governments in Johor, Melaka and Perak so far.

The sight of elected representatives switching their allegiance and trading their seats for power and God knows what else is repugnant and brings disrepute to their supposedly “honourable” positions. But as voters whose votes put many of these politicians into office, we are totally powerless as there are no anti-hopping laws to deal with these political frogs.

The need for an anti-hopping law or mechanism is obvious now to prevent such a cataclysmic betrayal of voters’ mandate in the future. The Penang state assembly has amended its state constitution since 2012 so that assemblymen will lose their seats if they join another party other than the one they contested under during the election or are sacked by their party.

But the constitutionality of such state-level provisions is questionable and has in the past been rejected by the Federal Court as being in violation of Article 10 of our Federal Constitution that guarantees freedom of association, which includes the freedom for elected reps to choose the parties they want to associate with.

Furthermore, anti-hopping laws would give political parties almost absolute power over their MPs and state assemblymen and the notion that our reps are free to vote or act according to their conscience or our best interests would be banished.

The unintended consequences of such rigid anti-hopping laws may be worse than the problem they are trying to solve. A better mechanism would be to recall elections. It is a mechanism that allows voters in a constituency, who are not satisfied with the elected rep, to withdraw their mandate in another election. If the recall proposal is carried, then a by-election would be held to fill the vacancy.

Normally, the petition for recall must first collect enough signatures (the threshold could be something like 10%) of registered voters from the constituency to force the vote of recall.

Such recall elections have already been in place and are used in many countries throughout the world, from Argentina, Canada and Germany to New Zealand, the Philippines, Switzerland, Taiwan, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The recall mechanism is designed according to local political and social conditions. The trigger for a recall can be a popular initiative like a signature campaign or meeting some legislated conditions, as in the UK.

The thresholds to trigger the process and for a successful recall can be adjusted to prevent political opponents from abusing such a mechanism but what it does is to empower voters to recall or revoke their vote for an elected rep mid-term for whatever legitimate reason.

In our Malaysian context, if such a recall mechanism is already part of our election laws, it may not prevent politicians from hopping but it will make them think twice before they do. It would also compel reps to work harder for their constituents for fear of being recalled as the reason for the recall is not limited to party-hopping.

Party-hoppers often justify their actions as necessary to serve their constituents better. If true, the party-hopper may defeat the recall proposal at the poll. Unlike the anti-hopping law, a recall election allows the voters to decide if they side with the defector or their old party.

What happened on Feb 29 was a political coup by the political elite. While it is permissible under our Federal Constitution and existing laws, it goes against the spirit of our parliamentary democracy and makes nonsense of the results of the general election.

The mandate of voters took second place to the power play of politicians. Backdoor governments may be legal but they can never be legitimised.

We must amend our laws to totally prevent or at least minimise the possibility of such political betrayals by empowering voters through a recall mechanism.

Thomas Fann is the chairman of Bersih 2.0

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.