Don’t you dare hopping over to another party!
Partyforumseasia: Party hopping banned at last in Malaysia! Reforms of parliamentary rules tend to be especially difficult because they can be game changers, and for laws and rules we know by experience that not all results and consequences can be foreseen. They may influence the power structure within the house and give advantages to one of the factions, even to the opposition, which the majority group would, of course, try to prevent. On 28 July, the Malaysian parliament passed a landmark law which will ban the all-too-common habit of MPs to switch party, challenge the power balance or even change the government. The law is called Anti-Party-Hopping Law (AHL) and will prevent party and aisle switching in future. It was passed unanimously by the 209 attending members and praised by Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob as “a law to ensure continuous and lasting political stability”. Since 2018, the party hopping of 39 MPs, called “frogs” in the media and by the voters, had toppled the first coalition government under veteran Prime Minister Mahathir in 2020 and endangered the two subsequent governments with their fragile majority, political instability has always threatened the paper thin majority of the coalitions in power. (See our post from September 2020 on Malaysia’s “Katak”-Parliament (Katak meaning frog in Malay): Malaysia’s “Katak” Parliament | Political Party Forum Southeast Asia (partyforumseasia.org) With the rare unanimity, the legislation was passed via a series of constitutional amendments, instead of a new Parliamentary Act. It is noteworthy, though, that the consensus was due to the confidence-and-supply agreement (CSA) between government and opposition for upholding the governability of the country and prevent the premature dissolution of parliament and snap elections. According to the AHL, the “frogs” lose their seat, except MPs who are fired by their party, but en bloc defections are still possible, a tribute to the required consensus in the highly fragmented party landscape in Malaysia. An additional factor was the looming early election, due only in September 2023, which might bring UMNO back to power.
Are there any lessons to be learned from this remarkable effort to prevent party hopping in Malaysia? The first, we suggest, is the danger of instability in more and more fragmented party systems. It is a widespread development worldwide, especially in many countries in Europe. Due to electoral fairness, even not so serious small parties like “Flying Yogis” or “Motorist Parties” are registered and even co-funded with taxpayers’ money if they reach a certain percentage of votes. Traditionally dominant mass parties have lost their positions and are far from a chance to win an absolute majority like in the old days. Malaysia is a special case because of the ethnic mix of the population and race-based electoral politics which created ethnically oriented parties for more than half a century. This leads to the second lesson, the blatant lack of ideological or programmatic distinction between the competing parties. Consequently, the electability depends at the end on the attractiveness of the candidates and, even more decisive, the magnitude of their campaign budgets, which in many countries in Southeast Asia predetermine election success. The third lesson, regional but very typical in Malaysia, is the prominent role of money politics. If a seat in parliament or a leadership role in the party is also a passport to lucrative deals in government-owned companies, the monetary aspect of a candidacy becomes the dominant motive and the common weal of the country and service to the citizens, against all campaign promises, may be secondary or even less. Especially if party hopping is being rewarded by the receiving party with financial compensation, the purpose of political activity is being perverted.
With the multitude of the ongoing challenges, from pandemics, economic and trade disruption to military threats, one can only wish Malaysia more political stability.
Malaysia’s party landscape: