Should Malaysia hold recall elections to keep elected reps in check? Can it work? Pundits weigh in

Recall elections allow voters in a constituency to remove their elected representative before the end of his or her term. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
Recall elections allow voters in a constituency to remove their elected representative before the end of his or her term. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

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KUALA LUMPUR, June 21 — Calls for recall elections have been growing in Malaysia in the past 15 months since the collapse of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government, triggered by the exit of several of MPs from PKR and Bersatu who then made a new pact and formed a new ruling coalition.

But what is a recall election? Briefly, it’s a system that allows voters in a constituency to remove their elected representative before the end of his or her term. It’s a system widely used in the US, the British Columbia region in Canada, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Switzerland and Ukraine.

To local advocates like political scientist Wong Chin Huat, the idea for recall elections is to balance the power that voters give their elected leaders by returning some of it by giving them the power of dismissal.

He explained that in this way, voters who are dissatisfied with their elected representative can petition for his or her removal immediately, instead of waiting for the next election, which could be years away.

“In a job contract, the employer and employee can both decide to end the contract by serving notice on the other party.

“In Malaysian politics, however, only lawmakers can quit, but voters have to continue paying lawmakers who jump parties or sleep on the job,” he told Malay Mail when contacted.

An alternative to party hopping

To Wong, switching parties is a part of democracy. He noted that this is also a guaranteed right enshrined in the Federal Constitution under freedom of association.

“Some politicians do it on genuine political principles, but some do it for their own personal interest... that's when it becomes a problem for the country. 

“With recall elections, voters can sack lawmakers if they break the law. Under the current rule, a lawmaker only loses his or her seat if they get sentenced to a year's imprisonment or a RM2,000 fine which means a lawmaker can get away with it if the judge decides to be lenient.

“With recall elections, we can actually put some limitations where voters will have some power to punish their incumbent lawmakers,” Wong said.

He said recall elections are seen as the better alternative to anti-hopping laws, which have been rejected by the courts in the past. The Federal Court had ruled that enacting anti-hopping law would violate Article 10 of the Federal Constitution, which guarantees freedom of association.

Can it work in Malaysia?

Wong said getting the mechanism right is important to ensure recall elections are not abused. That means setting the threshold as to when a recall election is allowed to take place.

“To sack an incumbent and hold a by-election, the number of voters who agree with the petition must not only be more than those who disagree, they must form at least 50 per cent of the electorate,” he explained.

Senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs Oh Ei Sun said that in many other democracies, recall elections are very much part and parcel of the democratic process and that voters have a bigger say.

“Recall elections are not a science, it's more like an art... you have to design it as such. A certain percentage of voters' signatures will be needed to institute a recall election, we have to determine that percentage. 

“The concern will be whether there will be a lot of these frivolous recalled elections, like only a few of these voters are not happy with him/her then they will initiate a recall election. So that's why the threshold for the signature to initiate and also the threshold to determine it should be carefully designed in this sense,” he elaborated.

Like Wong, Oh said recall elections are often considered a better option to anti-hopping laws, which he said can constrain a lawmaker’s political view if it were different from his or her party’s stand.

“Sometimes the elected representatives are elected under a certain party ticket... we are always assuming the party will be good what if the party itself becomes a bad party?” he asked.

He said elected representatives who parted ways with such “rogue” parties should not be disqualified as such.

“So in that sense, recall elections are better than anti-hopping laws... it's a much more superior way to address the concerns about all these frogging and also you can apply it when the elected representatives themselves do something wrong,” Oh told Malay Mail.

Universiti Teknologi Malaysia Geostrategist Prof Azmi Hassan has a different take on the matter. He said that while a new system and law can be introduced to hopefully end party hops, it was more important that voters and elected representatives have a sense of moral obligation. 

“For the time being, I think the solution is politicians who jump ship should have the moral obligation to resign their seat. That should come first before we have a system like recall elections. The moral obligation here is for both elected representatives and the voters... this must be put in place first. 

“Voters need to send out a message that politicians that jump ship will never see daylight in the next election if they stand again. I think that is the best constraint. 

“The voters concerned should never vote for this kind of politician. I think that is the best law we can have so that it will not happen again,” he told Malay Mail.

Azmi believes that party-hoppers are “unique” to Malaysia, saying he has not heard of a similar phenomenon in other democratic countries.

Bersih 2.0 chairman Thomas Fann has been one of the biggest proponents for introducing recall elections in Malaysia since March 2020.

He sees it as necessary to prevent a repeat of the political impasse following the collapse of the PH administration. 

Like Wong and Oh, Fann views recall elections as a chance for dissatisfied voters to withdraw their mandate for the person they had chosen previously to speak for them in the legislature.

Fann said Bersih 2.0 is working with a technology firm to organise a mock recall election online and will announce it on June 21.

He said the plan is to give voters whose representatives have changed camps since February 2020 a platform whereby they can show they agree or disagree with the new choice.

Participants in the mock recall election would be limited to registered voters at specific constituencies.

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