Bill banning party switching in Malaysia postponed again

Malaysia is seeking to ban politicians from switching parties, hoping to reduce political instability. But parliament debates on the legislation have been once again postponed to a later date.

Malaysia parliament
Malaysia Parliament, January 2022

Malaysian politicians are struggling to pass a law affecting them. It could however end the country’s political crisis that started in 2020. The anti-party-hopping law has been on the table since September but political parties have postponed the vote in Parliament again to review changes.

In Malaysia, politicians have been defecting from one party to another for many years, which sometimes caused the fall of majorities and governments. In 1992, the Federal Court even declared that barring party switching would infringe on someone’s freedom of association. But the practice reached its climax in February 2020 after members of Parliament switched parties and caused the collapse of the government led by Pakatan Harapan, the Alliance of Hope.

This moment has been reported as the Sheraton move, from a heated discussion within the center-left coalition for appointing a new prime minister in the hotel. Mahathir Mohamad was forced to resign from the prime minister’s position after 22 months in power because “frogs”, politicians who switch sides, cost him the majority.

Two years of political instability followed. The Yang di-Pertuan Agong, the King of Malaysia, appointed Muhyiddin Yassin as Prime Minister, who resigned in August 2021. The United Malays National Organization withdrew its support to the government because of the way the coalition handled the COVID-19 pandemic. The UMNO is a party that was continuously in power since Malaysia’s independence in 1957 until its loss in 2018 against Pakatan Harapan.

UMNO’s Vice President Ismail Sabri Yaakob became Prime Minister and signed a memorandum of understanding with Pakatan Harapan in September. The anti-party-hopping law was one of the core reforms for Pakatan Harapan to agree on political cooperation and refrain from motions of no-confidence.

Since the general elections in 2018, 39 members of Parliament have switched sides. The Dewan Rakyat, Malaysia’s House of Representatives, has 222 seats.

With the ban, seats would become vacant and elections would be organized again if elected members of Parliament switch parties. The change is expected to bring more political stability and restore public trust in the electoral system.

But the ban takes time to be laid out. Meanwhile, many politicians who will vote on it have already used the technique.

The bill was scheduled to be tabled on March 24. It was then postponed to April 11. But parties again pushed the date of Parliament debates on constitutional changes to restrict the freedom of association, prior to debating a bill.

The opposition has been accusing the government of trying to avoid tabling the bill as it announced last week that a constitutional amendment should be passed before voting on a bill. Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob said on Sunday the proposed law would probably be debated in July.

A two-thirds majority is needed to pass a constitutional amendment.

The Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (BERSIH), a coalition of non-governmental organizations that focuses on electoral reforms, on April 10 stated that with the existing path, Malaysia “may never see a legal mechanism to deal with the menace of party-hopping before” the next general elections that will renew members of Parliament in 2023.

Pakatan Harapan issued a statement on April 11 after a meeting with the government during which they agreed to rework changes in the constitution. The definitions of the restrictions for elected representatives to switch parties will be reviewed. They also agreed to remove from the constitution a clause that disqualified members of Parliament who have resigned from their positions from being elected again for a period of five years for not infringing the freedom of association.

A cross-partisan Parliament committee will work on refining constitutional changes. Both parts have agreed they will approve and vote on the constitutional amendments before the end of May 2022.

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