“The Spectre of Mass Party-hopping Mars Malaysia’s Democratic Integrity” by Lee Hwok-Aun

2018/107, 21 December 2018

Post-election party hopping and allegiance switching are not new to Malaysia. However, unlike previous episodes, the country now ponders the spectre of mass exodus from UMNO into the Pakatan Harapan coalition already holding a comfortable majority. Beleaguered UMNO President Zahid Hamidi’s decision to step aside and hand over duties to his deputy Mohamad Hassan may help stem the outflow, but some irreversible moves and continual uncertainties raise questions about the integrity of Malaysia’s electoral system and parliamentary democracy.

Various party-switching scenarios have played out. Within days of the May 9th elections, three independents joined PKR, PH’s largest party, including 22-year old P. Prabakaran who had contested as a PKR-endorsed independent (PKR’s candidate in that seat, Tian Chua, had been disqualified). In June and July, three UMNO MPs left their party. In September, two senior figures, former Minister of International Trade and Industry Mustapa and former Minister of Foreign Affairs Anifah Aman left UMNO; Mustapa has joined PPBM, Anifah has signaled he will form a new Sabah-based party.

Most dramatically, on December 12th in Sabah, five out of six UMNO MPs, along with nine out of ten state UMNO assemblymen (ADUNs), left the party en bloc. The MPs are now ostensibly “independent” while PH component parties evaluate whether to accept them.

None of the above are technically illegal maneuvers, but ethically problematic and arguably a violation of democratic principles. Citizens who voted for a specific party and coalition now have their choice upended.

Any switch of allegiance, regardless of political or moral circumstances, negates the vote. In the court of public opinion, however, the departure of a widely respected figure like Mustapa – in protest at the direction UMNO was taking – receives more sympathy than the perceived unprincipled opportunism of others.

This state of affairs if disconcerting to Malaysians in general; some call for “anti-hopping” laws. Legislating may not be so simple. Regulating the worst, most blatant forms, seems a clearer case, but a total ban might be too restrictive, if it precludes acts of conscience.

PH leaders and political figures convey mixed messages. Leaders in DAP and PKR, the larger parties, have been more vocal in disputing party hopping, but the parties do not take an unequivocal stance. Leaders of the smaller parties, PPBM and Amanah, have appealed for acceptance of UMNO MPs who cross over.
These statements fail to allay concerns that the parties will boost their numbers, or that the UMNO defectors will seek to insulate themselves from prosecution. The temptation to bolster PH’s majority to surpass the two-thirds threshold may also be difficult to resist.

Whatever the circumstances, any mass embrace of UMNO MPs and ADUNs by PH parties tarnishes democracy and undermines the reform agenda.

It is difficult to envisage a tenable solution arising from the improvised procedure of keeping UMNO leavers on independent status pending evaluation. Who will investigate and how credibly and transparently? Why should party-switching candidates face special anti-corruption scrutiny? Should not all elected representatives be subjected to similar oversight?

The range of party- or status-switching scenarios invites consideration of possible regulations beyond a blanket ban. For instance, Malaysia can consider mandating a by-election if a sitting representative switches from one party to another party, but allow conversion from being party-aligned to independent and vice versa, without triggering a by-election.

PH will do well to recall its institutional reform promises, which include, to “ensure transparency and robustness of the electoral system” and to “restore the dignity of parliament”. While the promises dealt more with operational aspects of parliament than party composition and alliance formation, the principle that elections must respect the choice of voters must be safeguarded. Moreover, PH’s promise to institutionalize a functional opposition is paramount for Malaysia’s democratic progress. PH can robustly proceed with the reform agenda with the comfortable majority it has, working out bi-partisan support for matters that require a two-thirds majority.

Dr Lee Hwok-Aun is Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.