Friday, March 12, 2010

Giving power to the voters through 'recall elections'

Concerned about the incessant political shenanigans in the country, 100 civil society groups made a plea that the country's budding democracy be protected and upheld. They chastised both coalitions for undermining voters' verdict through various unscrupulous means, including defections and changes in government without seeking a fresh mandate.

In a statement, they suggested both the coalitions undertake six basic reforms in their current capacity or in future as federal and state governments. Among them is the introduction of 'recall elections'.

Recall elections are an electoral device that allows citizens to sack elected representatives who underperform or betray their mandate.

Already in place in America and Canada, these are an extension of the democracratic process in that it allow citizens to hold elected officials accountable during their term in office.

Locally, recall elections sit between two extremes. The first is Article 48(6) of the Federal Constitution which prevents MPs from re-contesting for five years following their resignation.

The last MP to get away with this was Datuk Shahrir Samad, who resigned from Umno and re-contested as an independent for the Johor Bahru seat in 1998.

The second extreme is the anti-hopping law, passed in Sabah (1986) and Kelantan (1990). It was declared null and void several years later on the grounds that it was unconsitutional.

It forced a parliamentarian to vacate his seat if he changed party affiliation, regardless of whether he acted in the interest of the electorate. This gave the party leadership a disciplinary whip over members who stepped out of line.

Power to the voters

According to political analyst Wong Chin Huat, who drafted the statement on behalf of the civil society groups, and mobilised its endorsement, the advantage of recall elections is that it gives power to the electorate instead of representatives or the party leadership.

“It is two-pronged,” Wong explained. “If a representative changes party affiliation but still enjoys voter support, then he can retain his seat. And if a representative hasn't changed party affiliation but voters are unhappy, then they can sack him before his term expires.”

“So for instance if Tengku Razaleigh decides to resign, chances are the people would still want him to retain his Gua Musang seat. Someone like Zahrain Hashim, however, would probably lose his.”

Recall elections would push both coalitions to put forth their best candidates to serve the people and also force potential defectors to consider whether they are popular enough to retain their seats should they decide to jump. It would also reduce the appeal of vote buying.

“A candidate may bribe a group of voters to elect him but if all voters have the power to sack him, then those who didn't receive his 'tokens of appreciation' wouldn't hesitate to do so.”

Recall elections basics

In California, a recall election is called when as many as 12 percent of voters who voted for a representative in the previous election sign an initial petition calling for his removal.

During the recall election, voters will cast two ballots simultaneously. The first will decide whether or not the representative will retain his seat. The second is to elect a successor from a list of new contenders, should he be sacked.

If Pakatan Rakyat is serious about keeping defections in check then Wong strongly recommends that it introduce recall elections at state level by proposing an amendment to the state constitution to remove the anti-reelection clause.

This he said, can already begin in Penang and Selangor.

To implement this in Malaysia, the law would first have to decide on a reasonable benchmark for recall elections to be carried out, and Wong suggested 40 percent of the representative's voters in the last election. That aside, he doesn't see any other reason why recall elections would not be viable.

“There is nothing in the federal or state constitutions that prevents recall elections. The only technicality is that voters may have to cast their two ballots at two separate elections because the Election Act falls under federal law, and the state government cannot pack two things together unless the federal government decides to change the law,” said Wong.

But lawyer Haris Ibrahim has a differing opinion. He pointed out that while the current law provides for the election of a representative, there is no converse version of the law to undo that process.

“Just because there is nothing in the law that prevents recall elections, we cannot assume it is allowed. In fact, we should assume the opposite. You would need a form of legislation from parliament to implement this," said Haris.

Are we ready?

Although Malaysians are weary of all the political shenanigans, does that mean they are ready to embrace a new clean-up strategy?

Ibrahim Suffian, director of the Merdeka Center, has his doubts. While he supported the concept of recall elections, he said society must first be educated about how democracy really works.

“Malaysia is taking baby steps towards a better understanding of democracy,” he continued. “We're at a point where we have to decide whether we want to maintain status quo or keep pushing for change.”

“There are people who want democracy but there are also those who fear that the liberalisation that comes with it would be a threat to their welfare. We have to straighten this out first before recall elections can really work.”

Pakatan Rakyat coordinator, Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, stands with Ibrahim. He voiced strong concerns about the feasibility of recall elections when Malaysia doesn't even have a solid framework for basic elections at the municipal and government levels.

“If you want to pull the plug on defections, then enact an anti-hopping law,” he stated.

“What we should first overcome is the sense of helplessness that people have towards the current electoral system. We need to mobilse a new sense of empowerment through an existing system. At this stage, recall elections would be impractical and costly.”

Haris, on the other hand, believes that recall elections are a viable solution. He doesn't see any complexities in its implemention nor does he think the cost would differ from that of a by-election.

“Are we ready for recall elections? If we don't try, we'll never know. We must prepared to be creative and think out of the box.”

by: FMT

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