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A Fixed Parliament Term Act could ensure stability, but it has holes, say experts

Malay Mail
Malay Mail

KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 20 — Speculation about yet another bid to oust Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and his unity government by courting defections has prompted leaders from the ruling bloc to call for a “Fixed Term Parliament Act” (FTPA).

Proponents and supporters said a legislation that would allow a sitting administration to govern for a full term would be the best way to circumvent attempts to oust an elected coalition or party through opaque and undemocratic methods, and secure political stability.

Local advocates of a FTPA said the law could mimic the one passed by the British Parliament in 2011.

The British FTPA, now repealed, was enacted to prevent a snap election amid a backdrop of political turmoil, when then British prime minister David Cameron was forced to form a coalition government following a fractious national poll that led to a hung parliament. The Act did provide for the dissolution of the government, but only if two-thirds of the House of Common voted in favour.

Institutional reform group Stability and Accountability Malaysia, or Projek SAMA, said a key benefit of a fixed term law is transparency and the dismantling of monopolised power to call for elections in the hands of a prime minister. Under a FTPA, this power would instead be shared with parliamentarians.

“Dismissal of the government can only be done in a transparent manner on the floor of the Dewan Rakyat. It cannot be done by any process shrouded in secrecy, such as the counting of statutory declarations,” it said in a fact sheet about a FTPA.

“Second, the power to seek royal consent for early dissolution of Parliament will be shared amongst parliamentarians. This power will no longer be monopolised by the prime minister.”

A fixed term would also mean political parties will have time to prepare since the date of a general election would be known five years in advance. Projek SAMA said the assured lifespan will enhance predictability and stability of governments and policies.

“Having a FTPA protects us from uncertainty, anxiety and disasters rising from a prime minister’s gamble that an early election would bring a better result, but of course, it also denies him/her exactly that best outcome if things go well,” said Wong Chin Huat, political scientist with Sunway University and also a member of Projek SAMA.

“This would be a con to those who believe that political leaders should have a free hand in political gambling, but not to those of us who want a more stable politics.”

Under the current system, a prime minister has absolute power to decide when to dissolve the government and call for elections. The only situation that members of Parliament can force a sitting prime minister to call for elections is when they can prove the latter no longer commands majority support in the House of Representatives.

This has led to the practice of backdoor scheming to secure defections, which would then be expressed in a signed statutory declaration. During the political turmoil that led to the first Pakatan Harapan (PH) government’s ouster in 2020, federal lawmakers bypassed Parliament and used statutory declarations to force the King to appoint a new prime minister.

In just four years since the first PH administration collapsed, the country has had four prime ministers. Critics blamed much of the turmoil on wide loopholes in Malaysia’s democratic system, one that had encouraged “party hopping” and enabled corruption.

The crisis eventually led support for an anti-party hopping provision to be inserted in the Federal Constitution, but critics said the law remains rife with holes. Datuk Malik Imtiaz Sarwar, one of the country’s top constitutional lawyers, said a FTPA could plug the gaps.

“This would be useful in that it would prevent snap elections and, if drafted effectively, political moves that are not caught by the constitutional anti-hopping provision, for instance the shifting of political parties from one coalition to another,” he said.

“The benefit of this is obvious, an elected government of the day would have the time to fulfil its electoral mandate.”

But a fixed term law, even if the aim is to ensure stability, would still need to account for the possibility that defections may still happen, the lawyer added, citing the anti-hopping provision that doesn’t account for a shift of support en bloc, or in the case of MPs claiming to remain loyal to their parties but express support for a prime minister from the ruling coalition.

Malik said while changing associations is a democratic right, the conceived FTPA should incorporate measures that prevent defectors from “weaponising” the law to circumvent the anti-hopping provision.

New Sin Yew, also a constitutional lawyer, echoed the view. New said a FTPA will not prevent defections or solve the “root cause” of the problem. The lawyer thought a recall petition system, which allows voters to remove an elected lawmaker through a referendum, would be a better option.

“It simply means the prime minister won’t be able to call for an early election and the Agong won’t be able to consent to dissolution if the prime minister resigns,” he said.

“The defection of MPs resulting in a loss of confidence in the prime minister may be the cause for the dissolution, but having a FTPA won’t in itself prevent defections because defectors usually want a change of prime minister and government rather than a dissolution of Parliament.”

But Wong disagrees. He argued that while a FTPA may not prevent defections entirely, it could still discourage politicians from making manoeuvres to force a snap election since it could backfire if they fail to muster enough support.

“I do think a FTPA can discourage manoeuvres for mid-term government change. The imperfection in not closing the door entirely is necessary as Parliament must always have the power to dismiss the government. The point is only to avoid its abuse,” he said.