Minister of Public Management Reforms, Navin Dissanayake last week sought to quash rumors regarding his impending crossover from the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) to the United National Party (UNP). He was quoted in the media as insisting he would not leave the government on any account, but would rather return to practicing law if he lost his ministerial portfolio. Dissanayake however, is no stranger to jumping ship. He was among the 17 UNP MPs led by Karu Jayasuriya, who crossed over to the government in 2007 to ‘strengthen the hands of the president’ during the period when the war was at its height. One can argue that the current UPFA government is being propped up largely thanks to such crossovers that have occurred during the past decade. Jayasuriya returned to the UNP several years ago and speculation was that Dissanayake would be the second MP to come back into the fold.
We can’t of course, simply take Dissanayake’s word that he won’t be crossing over again to the UNP. The line “I will never cross over again” sounds rather hollow when you insert the adverb ‘again’ into the sentence. If you’ve done it before, chances are you could always do it again. Crossovers have taken place since the establishment of the country’s very first parliament in 1947. The first political crossover occurred in 1951, when S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike resigned from his ministerial portfolio under the UNP government of D.S. Senanayake and formed the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Since then, crossovers have been part and parcel of the Sri Lankan political landscape.
While crossovers happen even at the most basic local government level that is the Pradeshiya Sabha, it is crossovers in the legislature that grab most of the media and public attention. Some parliamentarians have proposed at various times to bring legislation that would outlaw such crossovers. However, the fact remains crossovers have not been stopped and judging by the fickle nature of Sri Lankan politics, are likely to continue well into the distant future.
The whole point about political crossovers in this country though, is that our politicians have developed it into an art form. There is so much cloak and dagger behind the scenes mechanizations that we, the public, are left hanging on tenterhooks regarding developments. “Will he/she or won’t he/she crossover?” we’re left asking. The thing about such crossovers now is that we’re never sure of it until it happens.
Take for example, Former UNP firebrand MP and now North Western Province Chief Minister Dayasiri Jayasekara. One of the UPFA government’s most vocal critics, Jayasekara chose to resign from parliament and contest for North Western Provincial Council election as the UPFA’s chief ministerial candidate. While speculation had been brewing for weeks that Jayasekara would indeed resign and crossover, he chose to deny those claims almost until the very day he resigned from parliament. Jayasekara however, chose to lace his denials with tidbits about being dissatisfied with the party leadership and the general direction of the party. As such, he made it known that he was not exactly thrilled about his treatment at the hands of the UNP.
There have been others of course, who have made crossovers something of a tradition. Ronnie de Mel is known more for crossovers than any other ‘service’ he rendered the country. Can anyone even remember how many times he crossed over? In fact, so many parliamentarians have done the back and forth between the two sides that one would be hard pressed to actually remember from which party they contested from first, and sometimes, even which party they are in now. There are times when one wonders whether the politicians themselves remember.
Sometimes, as in the case of minority parties such as the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC), if the leaders become disgruntled with partners of their alliance, the entire party tends to crossover as a single unit. Crossovers can make or break governments. We have seen that happen throughout our history. Even now, with speculation rife that a presidential election is imminent early next year, speculation about crossovers among both government and opposition ranks have gained increasing coverage. Ven. Athuraliye Rathana Thera from the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) has already threatened to leave the government with several other MPs unless the government agrees to implement a proposed 19th Amendment to the Constitution. However, these are still early days and no one quite knows who will end up where. Front benchers in both the government and opposition are no doubt hard at work, both trying to keep any disgruntled MPs from jumping ship while also trying to bait those from rival parties into joining their own ranks.
The theory is simple, and very much the same for every parliamentarian wishing to crossover: Bide your time, publicly deny rumors of your imminent crossover, but make sure to drop little tidbits so that your bosses know you aren’t happy with the way you are being treated. Then, wait to see if your own party would give you something worthwhile to change your mind. If you feel that is not forthcoming, do your thing at a time and date chosen by you, your new partners in the other party and your astrologer (if you believe in that stuff). It’s a tried and tested ‘game plan’ that has been put into practice by a majority of our parliamentarians. The coming weeks will tell us who will become the latest MPs to implement it.
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