Prof. Dr. Melanie Sully

The "Klub Hopping" Challenge

Article by Dr Melanie Sully in the Wiener Zeitung 19.8. 2015 p. 2 "Die Klub-Hopper-Herausforderung". In many parliaments MPs cross the floor to join another group; in some there are restrictions and in most problems ensue. Here a comparative analysis with reference to the situation in Austria (English summary click here)

The Klub-Hopper Challenge

English adaptation of op ed that appeared in German in the Wiener Zeitung 19.8. 2015

by Dr Melanie Sully

Switches in party allegiance in parliaments are not uncommon as for example in the Czech Republic and Romania although in some countries such as Estonia and Bulgaria there are restrictions. Bills to ban outright such defections have been consistently defeated in the Canadian parliament. A Law in New Zealand forbidding party switches proved unworkable and was abandoned. Concerns were raised about conflicts with freedom of association and the failure to cover adequately “legitimate dissent” or cases where a Member of Parliament genuinely disagrees with the party or where the party line deviated from the electoral platform on which it was elected.

The reasons for the change in party allegiance are important but difficult to pin down. There could be “goodies” deriving from being in a government party. Additional speaking time in the plenary or committees and the chance to be part of a more effective group. The prospect of a secure seat at the next election could be an added survival carrot. Banning such switches is justified by some as a kind of anti-corruption measure.

The desire by an MP to better represent their voters in a government party rather than in opposition may be seen as admirable but it could be understood by the public as crass opportunism. In addition the job of an MP is to furnish through parliamentary groups a dynamic interaction between government and opposition. Switches to government groups undermine the opposition and potentially the control function of the legislature. Especially problematic is when the switch involves movements in public funding and/or a change in a government coalition. The free mandate is not an absolute as is shown by the fact that the Klubs send their people to the committees and can withdraw them at any time. There they are expected to represent the views of the respective group.

Whereas the public may go along with a genuine one-off switch in loyalty, frequent changes can be seen negatively. It brings the institution of parliament into disrepute and increases the widespread feeling of cynicism that power games ultimately determine our political life. Apathy can be the result and the average voter may also struggle in the end to remember which party a political nomad belonged to at a specific time.

But the current unease with the Klub Hoppers in Austria is symptomatic of a deeper malaise in the body politic. A parliament with predictable voting and ritualistc speeches with overcoached politicians does little to inspire. Changes in the media treatment of politics could help revitalise interest with active audience participation making politicians accountable through live question times in the studio. The architects of political hopping could then explain their moves, increase transparency and have the chance to rebuild trust.