Malaysia Speaker rules opposition MPs can keep seats despite backing PM Anwar

KUALA LUMPUR – Six MPs deemed to have left opposition Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia after pledging support for Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, have not breached anti-party hopping laws (APHL) and will retain their parliamentary seats. 

The decision by Malaysia’s parliamentary Speaker Johari Abdul, conveyed to Bersatu late on July 9 in letters seen by The Straits Times, safeguards Datuk Seri Anwar’s two-thirds supermajority in Parliament by averting by-election in the six constituencies.

But the move risks undermining the APHL, which Mr Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition lobbied hard to implement before the November 2022 General Election, and casts further doubt on the PH-led government’s commitment to reforms.

The Speaker’s decision also runs counter to a June 19 ruling by Tan Sri Johari’s counterpart in Kelantan that Nenggiri assemblyman Mohd Azizi Abu Naim – who is one of the six – had to vacate his seat in the state legislature after Bersatu said he had ceased to be a member of the party.

The Nenggiri by-election will be held on Aug 17.

Malaysia’s APHL states that elected representatives who are no longer members of the party under which they were elected, have to vacate their seats except in cases where they are sacked, or the party is dissolved.

Mr Azizi, who is also Gua Musang MP, was deemed to have left the party along with five other Bersatu parliamentarians in June, after they failed to retract their backing for Mr Anwar. This was in line with changes to party rules approved in April.

The changes to Bersatu’s Constitution that voids the membership of an elected representative who defies party directives, mirrors that of ruling parties in the multi-coalition government such as Umno, Parti Amanah Negara and the Democratic Action Party.

The decision by Mr Johari – a close ally of Mr Anwar and senior official in the Premier’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat until his appointment as Speaker – comes hot on the heels of the government’s defeat at the Sungai Bakap by-election on July 6, where the opposition Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition retained the Penang state legislative seat by a wider margin.

The voters in the six seats held by the former Bersatu MPs are largely from the Malay majority, a demographic dominated by PN.

“The Speaker’s decision using flimsy excuses and misinterpretations has transgressed the Federal Constitution,” former prime minister and Bersatu leader Muhyiddin Yassin said on July 10 in response to the Speaker’s decision.

He referred to Mr Johari’s speech on July 27, 2022, when debating the Bill to enact the APHL in Parliament, where the then Sungai Petani MP had said: “This is the only legislation that can stop us from destroying our country. Regardless of whether on this (opposition) or that (government) side, this (defections) must end here.”

The PN chairman said: “The fact is, the Speaker himself has betrayed the spirit and intention of the constitutional amendment to stop party hopping.” He added that Bersatu will seek further legal advice.

In his letter to Bersatu vice-president and party whip Ronald Kiandee, Mr Johari claimed that the party’s rules contravened the rights of MPs “guaranteed under the Federal Constitution” and parliamentary privileges that gave them “freedom to speak, debate and vote”.

In 2022, Parliament unanimously backed constitutional amendments to curb party hopping, known as the APHL. The move came on the back of two changes in government between 2020 and 2021 due to defections.

Previous court rulings had already determined that the judiciary had no power to review the decision of the Speaker on the vacancy of seats. This includes a 2023 ruling stating that Bersatu could not challenge Mr Johari’s decision that four Sabah lawmakers would retain their seats, following accusations that they had party-hopped after winning the general election under Bersatu’s flag.

In an immediate response, Umno’s long-serving former minister Shahrir Samad accused the Speaker of “making decisions not based on principles but self-interest” and warned that the move could backfire.

He said: “Now there is nothing to prevent a change of support without leaving the party. What if it is the other way around? That is, to withdraw support from the Leader of the House (the prime minister) without leaving the party? This decision does not ensure political stability.”

In the aftermath of the 2022 general election, a clutch of MPs from the Umno-led Barisan Nasional had initially pledged support for Mr Muhyiddin, but were eventually dissuaded after Umno president Zahid Hamidi and his allies warned that the APHL would be triggered, and they could lose their seats.

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