Friday September 7, 2012
Freedom to be loyal
ROAMING BEYOND THE FENCE
By TUNKU 'ABIDIN MUHRIZ
An anti-hopping law would give party leaders even more power over MPs, who already cannot muster the courage to disobey the party whip if they believe that a Bill is not in the interests of their constituents.
MANY commentators with whom I generally agree on measures to improve our country seem to have been hoodwinked into supporting a popular anti-democratic move, namely the banning of party hopping by members of parliament and state legislators.
I opposed this in a political philosophy essay I wrote at university in 2002, I opposed it in my column in 2008 and I oppose it now.
The whole campaign is based on two flawed assumptions.
The first is that Malaysians vote for political parties, not for individuals. This is legally untrue (our Federal Constitution refers to “individuals” elected to the Dewan Rakyat and the “individual” to be appointed Prime Minister, but never to “political parties”), but even those who understand this important distinction claim that “Malaysians vote for parties by default”, which has not been scientifically verified (I suspect most Malaysians give consideration to both the party’s manifesto and the candidate’s background and record).
If it turns out that Malaysians do in fact vote for the party rather than the candidate, they should campaign for a law to be passed to make this a legal reality, but until then, it is dangerous to fix a perceived problem based on unverified claims.
The second assumption is that whenever an instance of party hopping occurs, it is the candidate who is at fault, rather than the party. Well, let us imagine that I vote for Puan Thavamani of the Feline Front because she campaigns (in accordance with the party manifesto) to ban dogs from public roads.
She wins the election, but months later there is an internal party struggle. The leader is replaced, and he reverses the party policy: dogs will now be allowed to roam free everywhere.
I am furious, because I supported the candidate based on this manifesto pledge. If YB Thavamani now supports canine freedom on public roads, she would be violating the trust I placed in her.
At the very least, I would expect her to defy her party whip in relevant parliamentary votes.
But let us imagine that party policy changes in other areas too, and it is clear that the manifesto is being disregarded to the extent that a different political party, the Cats Pact, better reflects the manifesto I supported. I would most definitely support YB Thavamani hopping from Feline Front to Cats Pact better fight for the causes that I supported.
Clearly, if a no party-hopping law was in force, she could not do that.
More flexible commentators agree that she should be able to hop, but must resign and re-contest.
However, apart from the costs involved, this would also be a breach of my trust – I voted expecting her to serve for a full term.
Furthermore, it is possible that the new result could be less democratically legitimate if the by-election has a lower turnout than at the general election (perhaps my critics will then support the undemocratic idea of compulsory voting).
My detractors will say that my analogy does not apply in Malaysia, where the reality is that inducements are made to successful candidates to switch loyalties for pure political power play rather than ideological differences.
Even then, there is a better way to deal with unprincipled party hopping than to attempt to ban it: namely, to democratise the political parties.
At the moment, it is easy for Party Leader A to buy a candidate’s support from Party Leader B because in both parties it is the party leader who decides who gets to be a candidate and where: the loyalty goes upwards.
But if Party B were to instead have candidates elected by local party grassroots or even all voters in a constituency (like in US primaries), it would be much more difficult for Party Leader A to buy any support: the candidate would feel loyalty downwards, to a much larger base of people.
Naturally, none of our party leaders from both sides of the divide are supporting such a scheme because they all want to hold on to the enormous powers of patronage they currently enjoy.
Indeed, an anti-hopping law would give party leaders even more power over MPs, who already cannot muster the courage to disobey the party whip if they believe that a Bill is not in the interests of their constituents!
So, while I certainly sympathise with those who are disgusted by unprincipled politicians, I believe that banning party hopping will not deal with the root causes.
Rather, we should seek more democracy within political parties, more transparency on political party funding and more media freedom. These will help ensure that in future, any candidate who wishes to switch allegiance will better have a damn good reason to do so.
> Tunku ’Abidin Muhriz is president of IDEAS