Malaysia’s political party transfer ban law put to the test in controversial ruling on dismissed lawmaker

Chairman Johari Abdul on Tuesday informed opposition Bersatu that there would be no vacancies in seats held by six of its former lawmakers who were fired earlier this year for supporting Anwar in exchange for government financial support for their constituencies.

The opposition said they would take “appropriate” legal action to challenge the speaker’s interpretation of the law, calling it a “distorted” one and a betrayal of constitutional reform aimed at cracking down on party switching among lawmakers.

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Anwar Ibrahim on navigating US-China tensions in Malaysia | Talking Post with Yongden Ratu

Anwar Ibrahim on navigating US-China tensions in Malaysia | Talking Post with Yongden Ratu

“Bersatu has decided to appoint legal experts to take action and ensure that appropriate measures are taken to comply with the Federal Constitution and Bersatu party constitution,” party leader Muhyiddin Yassin said in a statement on Wednesday.

Electoral reform group Bersih said the speaker had “erred in understanding” the principles and purpose of the no-party transfer provision and that his decision could create legal loopholes, erode public confidence and lead to political instability.

The decision also suggests that Parliament will remain constrained by the executive branch and “reinforces the perception that the government is more interested in retaining power than doing the right thing,” Bersi said in a statement Thursday.

Anwar, however, defended the verdict, saying the Speaker’s actions were within the law. He also said the situation was solely the fault of the opposition parties as it was they who opposed the proposal to impose compulsory vacancies when lawmakers are expelled from their parties.

“at that time [when negotiating anti-hopping provisions]We in the opposition wanted to include a clause that said that anyone who was removed would automatically lose. [their seat]”Bersatu was against this at the time,” Anwar told reporters on the sidelines of the event on Thursday.

Bersatu Chairman Muhyiddin Yassin leaves a closed-door meeting in Kuala Lumpur in 2020. Photo: AP

The issue of what to do with expelled lawmakers was contentious, but parliament unanimously approved a constitutional amendment in 2022 making it illegal for lawmakers to leave or join another party during their term.

The changes came after a series of defections that led to the collapse of the government of Mahathir Mohamad, who had served two terms as prime minister two years ago.

Anwar assumed power in late 2022 on the back of a fragile alliance between his Pakatan Harapan coalition and longtime rival former ruling party UMNO, after deeply divisive national elections that ended without a single party winning a majority in the 222-seat Parliament.

The latest attempt by disgraced former prime minister Najib Razak to serve the remainder of his 1MDB-related sentence under house arrest is seen as testing that cooperation, after deputy prime minister and UMNO leader Ahmad Zahid Hamidi filed an affidavit in support of the former leader’s application. Najib’s request was ultimately rejected..

Anwar, who also serves as finance minister, is due to present the 2025 budget in mid-October. Though he holds a supermajority in parliament, a vote against the budget that exceeds the opposition’s support could be seen as a challenge to his leadership.

Mr Oh Ei San, a senior research fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said the ban on party switching gave the speaker wide discretion to decide whether to vacate a seat if an MP switched parties.

Mr Oh warned that this could lead to the speaker – usually chosen from government lawmakers or individuals selected by the government – making “blatantly partisan” decisions to dismiss lawmakers who abandon the government and retain the seats of opposition defectors.

“If that were the case, the government would not be afraid of lawmakers defecting or being held to ransom during the budget period,” Oh told This Week In Asia.

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