Malaysia’s anti-party hopping law tested by controversial ruling on sacked MPs

Last Updated on July 11, 2024 4:17 pm

By Joseph Sipalan

Alliances in Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s government may be tested following a ruling by the parliamentary speaker to allow opposition MPs to retain their seats despite having been sacked by their party, testing the constitution’s anti-party hopping law designed to prevent political instability.

The speaker’s decision will likely “come back to haunt” the government as it potentially paves the way for MPs on either side of the divide to break ranks in pursuit of their individual interests, said Syaza Farhana Mohamad Shukri, the head of the political science department at the International Islamic University of Malaysia.

“It can and definitely will be used against the government,” she added.

Speaker Johari Abdul informed opposition party Bersatu on Tuesday that there would be no vacancy in the seats held by six former party MPs, who were sacked earlier this year for declaring their support for Anwar in exchange for financial support from the government for their constituencies.

The opposition said they will pursue “appropriate” legal action to challenge the speaker’s interpretation of the law, which they described as “twisted” and a betrayal of the constitutional amendments meant to clamp down on MPs switching political parties.

“Bersatu has decided to take action by appointing legal experts to take the appropriate action to uphold the federal constitution and the party constitution of Bersatu,” party president Muhyiddin Yassin said in a statement on Wednesday.

Electoral reform group Bersih said the speaker had “erred in understanding” the principles and purpose of the anti-party hopping provisions and that his decision would create legal loopholes that will erode public confidence and potentially lead to political instability.

The decision also implies that parliament remains constrained by the executive, “reinforcing the perception that the government is more interested in maintaining power than doing the right thing,” Bersih said in a statement on Thursday.

Anwar, however, defended the ruling, saying that the speaker had acted within the bounds of the law. He also said the opposition only have themselves to blame for the situation as they were the ones who had opposed proposals to impose mandatory vacancies in the case of an MP being expelled by their party.

“At the time [when negotiating anti-hopping provisions], we in the opposition wanted to include a provision that whoever is sacked automatically loses [their seat],” Anwar told reporters on the sidelines of an event on Thursday. “It was opposed by Bersatu at that time.”

While the question of what to do about expelled MPs proved contentious, parliament in 2022 unanimously approved the constitutional amendments that made it illegal for MPs to quit or join other parties during their term.

The amendments were made in response to a spate of defections that brought down the administration of two-time prime minister Mahathir Mohamad two years earlier.

Anwar rose to power in late 2022 on the back of a tenuous alliance between his Pakatan Harapan coalition and long-time rivals in former ruling party Umno after a deeply divided national election that ended with no single party winning a simple majority in the 222-seat parliament.

A recent attempt by disgraced former prime minister Najib Razak to serve the remainder of his 1MDB-linked jail term under house arrest is seen to have tested that partnership, after Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the deputy prime minister and president of Umno, filed an affidavit in support of his former leader’s application. Najib’s request was eventually denied.
Anwar, who is also finance minister, is expected to table his government’s 2025 budget in mid-October. He holds a parliamentary supermajority, but any vote against his budget that exceeds the numbers held by the opposition could be seen as a challenge to his leadership.

Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said the anti-party hopping provisions provide broad leeway for the speaker to decide whether a seat should be vacated when an MP shifts allegiances.

This, Oh warned, could lead to “blatantly partisan” decisions by the speaker – who is typically elected from among government MPs or private individuals picked by the government – to remove MPs who abandon the government while allowing opposition defectors to keep their seats.

“If so, the government has no fear of its MPs defecting or holding it ransom during budgetary periods,” Oh told This Week In Asia.

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