Recall elections may not deter party defections

Why spend so much money and effort on an arduous procedure that may even be an effective recall election?

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Don’t get me wrong, I am supportive of having the recall election mechanism in place for many good reasons – to allow voters who are highly dissatisfied with a certain elected representative’s performance or public behaviour to be able to act to recall the mandate.

Actually, it could be on any grounds that can garner popular support where the voters deem the person is no longer fit or legitimate to represent them, be it an integrity issue (the elected representative told a significant and damning lie in public or misappropriated public funds for private use), or moral issue (he or she acted or uttered racist or sexist words or displayed indecent or unacceptable behaviour in public).

Although the betrayal of the voters’ mandate due to party defections could also be one big issue for recall elections, the mechanism itself does not serve as a deterrent stern enough to prevent the phenomenon of party defections affecting the ultimate outcome: change of government and reward for the defectors. Let me elaborate further.

One big factor why some political parties and politicians are more ready to accept the recall election proposal as an alternative to the generally dubbed “anti-party hopping law” is that the affected politicians can keep their seats until they are challenged officially.

There are sveral big hurdles for the electorate to overcome to recall a particular elected representative. The burden is on the challengers in terms of running the signature collection campaign to pass a certain threshold of the electorate size and then come the signature verification processes.

It is by no means easy: the discontentment has to be high and popular enough to ignite people’s passion and sustain the campaign against the politician in question.

Just look at Bersih 2.0’s halted mock recall election campaign against Tebrau MP Steven Choong in August. This shows the difficulties of the public petition campaign to move against less high-profile party defectors like Steven Choong.

If 10 elected representatives have “jumped ship”, let’s say recall elections have to successfully bring down at least five, and opposition parties have to wrest back all the recalled seats in the subsequent by-elections to ‘restore’ the balance and gain back their dominance in parliamentary seats. For this series of events to go through, what is the probability of success? What if the defectors just gamble their chance for power and favours and play a “catch-me-if-you-can” game?

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Another consideration would be, who can fund and sustain the possible long campaign in all 10 constituencies (and what if the number is even bigger than 10)? How long is a successful recall process going to take? This does matter a lot, and, as the idiom often goes, “a week is a long time in politics”. I found that a high-profile recall election case in Taiwan involving Kaohsiung former mayor Han Kuo-yu took 234 days.

If the defectors were allowed to form a new government and be sworn in as ministers or deputies alike with elevated and consolidated power stature, could the balance of power not tip largely in favour of the incumbent seat holders with government resources and machinery at their disposal?

If it were an “anti-party hopping” law, defectors would have been stopped immediately, and no power grab would be possible in this way, let alone letting the defectors build electoral advantages over a relatively long period (about eight months in Han’s case) spoiling the attempt or preparing for the possible recall.

With so many perks on offer, what is so deterrent about the recall election for the defectors not to gamble?

India, Pakistan, Kenya and Uganda have the similar first-past-the-post electoral system like Malaysia, and also often face party defections.

If recall elections would have been superior in deterring political defections, why haven’t these countries prone to party defectors already adopted this measure? Among these four countries, only India has a recall mechanism at the state level but not at the most powerful lower house (Lok Sabha).

In fact, it is uncommon for recall elections to be used mainly to deter political defections in the world. It is mostly used to act against municipal leaders (that is, mayors and governors) for performance or integrity-related issues.

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Look at the most active users of such recall elections in the US. Although there are some good examples of successful recalls, that is also accompanied with a long list of unsuccessful recalls or failed attempts to qualify for recall elections. The latest case was California Governor Gavin Newsom, who survived the recall.

One has to be cautious about the recall mechanism as a double-edged sword in that it could also be used by some civil groups to force out lawmakers that they do not like. Think Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia mobilising its grassroots to recall Segambut MP Hannah Yeoh.

Peru is another country where the citizens actively use their recall mechanism. Between 1997 and 2013, 45.5% of all 747 municipalities had experienced more than 5,000 activated recall referendums against locally elected officers. Welp (2014) explains the weakness of the institutional design of the mechanism that has led to a series of successful activation of recall referendums in Peru.

More importantly, it points out how political parties have the incentive to exploit the weakness to “gain power between regular elections”. Thus, the design of the recall election mechanism has to be made with careful and considerable deliberation to avoid being abused.

It is also fair to say that the current prevalently perceived anti-party defections law is not without problems.

One oft-mentioned issue is that the elected representatives would be held even in tighter grip if the law becomes the new order, as the politician would fear the consequence of being sacked and, hence, disqualified as the sitting member of Parliament or assembly member if they do not toe the party (leader’s) line.

This statement appears as if the current party politics is not already showing this party toeing phenomenon, which may not be solved by an anti-party defections law, nor can a recall election remedy this.

Most problematic is that the argument tars all politicians with the same brush – that they are interest (read: seat)-bound and dare not take a principled stand and put their conscience and the public interest first.

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However, in some legitimate circumstances, laws to curb party defections could be too rigid and punitive. For example, a splinter and realignment of ideology or principles for the Amanah MPs prior to the 2018 general election.

In fact, the penalty of disqualification of the legislative membership is the core contention that was said to contravene the Federal Constitution on the freedom of association, as this was the judgment precedence set in the case of Dewan Undangan Negeri Kelantan v Nordin Salleh (1992).

What if there could be a third way, not requiring the party quitter to relinquish the seat immediately? He or she could continue to hold office until the automatically triggered by-election, reaffirming the mandate for the particular seat.

What we need to deter is the single-member party defections resulting in a change of government. Hence, it is fair to temporarily suspend the right of the defectors to pledge new allegiance or support for the other coalition until the by-election results confirm the mandate for their seats.

To live up to the true spirit of representative democracy, an automatically triggered by-election is important to find out who actually still commands the mandate to represent a particular constituency. This is a necessary, legitimate and straightforward democratic test, not a penalty.

Unlike the recall election, it is like playing many extra rounds of qualifiers with added difficulties in order to sit for the true test.

Why spend so much money and effort on an arduous procedure that may even be an effective recall election, while we can have an automatically triggered by-election mechanism to find out who the seat should really belong to?

Let’s have the ‘specialist’ reaffirming mandate law to deal with the defections and changing of the government issue while keeping the ‘generalist’ recall election measure for other legitimate use purposes. – The Malaysian Insight

Lim Chee Han is a founding member of Agora Society and a policy researcher. He believes a nation can advance significantly if policymaking and research are taken seriously

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SC Ooi
SC Ooi
26 Sep 2021 11.13pm

Good suggestion wrt the anti-hopping law. I agree that recall election procedure is not suitable to deter party hopping to bring down a duly elected government. Automatically triggered by-election with seat still belonging to the original party until the by-election is a reasonable proposal. Next step is define what is “hopping”? Is entire party switching coalition “hopping”? What about just after an election but before a government is formed? What about a seat holder who was sacked by his party? What about independents joining a party? Etc, etc