Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Should Parliamentary Defectors Resign?

Written by johnleemk on 3:02:59 am Mar 20, 2007.

The state assemblyman for Bahau in Negeri Sembilan recently announced he had rejoined the Malaysian Chinese Association, a main component party of the ruling Barisan Nasional regime. This came two months after he left the opposition Democratic Action Party and stated he would remain as an independent in the state assembly.

There has naturally been much consternation about this move. Many, including several DAP leaders, have called on the man to resign as a state assemblyman and recontest the seat in a by-election.

At first glance, the rationale appears clear and simple. The voters voted him in with the expectation that he would support the platform of his party. If he jumps ship to another party — especially one which is often diametrically opposed to his original party — it seems reasonable to expect him to recontest the seat.

Nevertheless, this is actually a somewhat difficult question. The first issue it raises is whether politics should be about individual personalities or parties. Those who advocate the stand that a defector should resign are basically saying that voters choose a party, not an individual candidate, when they cast their ballot.

Is this true, though? In a Parliamentary system, voting blocs are normally more informal than the rigid party systems imposed in several countries around the world today. Certainly, party loyalty is not meant to be so strict as it presently is in Malaysia, where not voting with the party line on any issue means, at the very least, a severe reprimand.

After all, the only constitutional duty Members of Parliament have is to their constituents. Not to their parties, and not to the government. If they can still serve the voters, it seems manifestly unfair to force them out simply because they have altered their political affiliation.

At the same time, the practical reality of things is that not many people vote for the person over the party, unless the person is particularly prominent. If they are a nobody — such as the chap who defected — they will usually have been elected simply because of the symbol next to their name on the ballot.

But if we were to force all defectors to resign, this would mean forcing out good people whose alignment of principles has changed, but whose ability and desire to serve the people is undiminished. I'm sure many of the same people crying for blood now would not be very happy if, say, Shahrir Abdul Samad (the famous MP who quit his post as leader of the BN Backbenchers after he refused to toe the party line) defected to the DAP and was forced to contest a by-election just to confirm this. (Even more so if he lost.)

This brings me to the next issue raised. Invariably, wherever I see proposals for restricting the ability of Parliamentarians to defect, these proposals come right after some MPs have defected to a party that the proposers are not exactly fond of.

As said earlier, who would be baying for blood if it had been a prominent establishment MP or state assemblyman who had defected? Would the DAP leaders be still calling for the fellow to step down, and for a by-election to be held? I think not.

I think it is quite clear that one rule cannot be laid down for all defections without causing some level of injustice. If it is obvious that the incumbent will be re-elected despite switching parties, it seems redundant and wasteful to hold a by-election just for the purpose of appearances.

I am just throwing out ideas at this point, but it seems to me that if an MP switches parties, the best thing to do would be to require a special by-election unless the MP is more than three years into his term.

Should the MP, for purposes of formality, resign in order to trigger such an election? I don't think so — the law should just view the MP's term as having been hastened to its end because the terms on which he was elected to serve have been changed.

This may seem like nitpicking, but it can be important. Some countries ban ex-MPs who have resigned their seats from contesting in an election for a certain period of time. If I'm not mistaken, Malaysia may be one of them.

Also, I think there is a certain symbolism in the fact that the MP does not resign because of his new affiliation — it indicates some shame on his part for admitting he has changed his mind on some issues. There is also symbolism in that he simply has to go back to his constituents and ask them to reconfirm him on new terms of reference by which he is to serve them. This, I think, is better than more restrictive ways of preventing defection (such as forcing an outright resignation without an opportunity to recontest the seat) or the possibly restrictive way of forcing a resignation which may encumber the ability of the defector to contest any seat in the future.

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