Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A power game that lacks ethics, morality

New Straits Times
by Sheridan Mahavera

IF the Perak crisis looks bad, you really haven't seen how crossovers have racked India. Constitutional law expert Professor Dr Shad Saleem Faruqi notes that three general elections had to be held in five years because governments were brought down by defecting MPs.

An anti-hopping law, its supporters argue, would give Malaysian politics its much-needed moral spine and excise the money and largesse that plagues it.

With such a law, there would not be "two" menteri besar in Perak and the eruption of street protests and rallies between their supporters everywhere.

If done judiciously, Dr Shad says, a crossover law would not impinge on a person's freedom of association, as provided under Article 10 of the Federal Constitution.

Neither is Perak the first state government to be dethroned by crossovers. Professor Datuk Shamsul Amri Baharudin of the Institute of Malay World and Civilisation recalls that it has happened four times since Merdeka: in Terengganu in 1959, Sarawak in 1967, Kelantan in 1978 and Sabah in 1994.

Crossovers are "a low point of democracy", Dr Shad said on a recent news programme on Bernama TV. The argument is that it dishonours the electoral mandate given by voters to a candidate, since they are largely chosen on the basis of the party they represent.

According to Ibrahim Sufian of independent polling and research group the Merdeka Centre, the data shows that Malaysians think of party before personality when they go to the ballot box.

"About two-thirds of voters are in some way affiliated to a political party, whether they are sympathisers and supporters or core members," said Ibrahim.

Political parties, he explained, have become entrenched in Malaysian life through their extensive programmes. For instance, visiting a family that has been hit by a flood, fire or desperate poverty is today standard operating procedure for every wakil rakyat, whether from Barisan Nasional or Pakatan Rakyat.

"When you put parties like Umno, Pas and MCA together, they have millions of members," says Ibrahim, "so when an election is called, as much as two-thirds of the votes will likely be going to a certain party."

In Merdeka Centre's research, who a candidate is matters only when she or he is a huge personality like a cabinet minister, parliamentary opposition figure, or someone well known in the district. Fence-sitters make up the remaining third.

So candidates voted in cannot truthfully say they were chosen for their charisma, smarts or looks, while discounting the thousands of workers and ringgit -- and the party brand -- that carried them in.

"Voters should be given a choice to review their decision on their candidate when he switches camps", said Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia political scientist Associate Professor Muhammad Agus Yusof.

Agus proposes that Article 48 of the Constitution be amended to allow wakil rakyat who resign from their posts to seek re-election, as they are currently barred from electoral office for five years. This provision is one reason why elected representatives who have a "change of heart" are reluctant to vacate their seats.

Dr Shad says crossovers can also be discouraged by introducing a new law or amending Article 10 of the Constitution, which relates to freedom of association, both of which are possible.

Article 10(1)(c), indeed, allows Parliament to impose restrictions on freedom of association in the interest of security, morality and public order, wrote Bar Council member Roger Tan in the NST in June last year.

The Federal Court in 1992 ruled against an enactment in the Kelantan state legislature that was designed to prevent defections, but a later 2005 ruling on a separate case could pave the way for another shot at introducing anti-crossover regulation.

"If an anti-party hopping law can be justified on the grounds of 'morality'," wrote Tan, "no amendment to the Federal Constitution will be necessary and the government will only need a simple majority to pass anti-hopping legislation."

So if such a law were a moral imperative and not legally impossible, it becomes a question of when and not how Parliament can get such a law passed. Perhaps the reason why no one seems in a hurry to enact one is that it is not in the interest of Pakatan and BN to have one.

Aside from a small minority of leaders in both coalitions, no one seems to think that crossovers are immoral. Pakatan was prepared to do it to seize the Federal Government, and the BN has engineered enough to see the collapse of one state government.

A few weeks before Pakatan's Perak administration fell, Pas, Parti Keadilan Rakyat and DAP were singing the praises of Bota state assemblyman Datuk Nasarudin Hashim, who switched from Umno to PKR. Nasarudin's return to Umno promptly shut them up.

Ethics, said Shamsul Amry, have gone out of the window. What's left is a vicious game for control and a contest of interests. Lest both coalitions disregard the view that ethics and morality should be returned to politics through an anti-hopping law, they should pay attention to the views of a voter who wanted to be called Blaise John.

John had phoned into the TV talk show featuring Dr Shad, and told viewers that he was "sickened" by all the crossovers.

"We spent time and money to queue up during the last general election only to discover that our wakil rakyat switched camps after we voted him in," he lamented.

"Next general election, I may consider not going to vote at all, because what's the point if the person I vote for changes parties?"

Since some politicians seem quite comfortable with politics being about just power and control, it's up to people like John and the rest of Malaysia's voters to declare otherwise by booting them out at the next general election.

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