Cross Overs In A Parliamentary Democracy

sri lankaCross over is the name of the political game that is being played fast and furious right now. It is not a new game in Sri Lankan politics. Some governments have stood firm despite the so called pillars propping it up having walked away. Other governments have collapsed almost instantly.

Carried away by prevalent political winds, the Sri Lankan voter does not seem to realise the impact of such a cross over at the moment it occurs. However laudable the motives of an MP walking from one side of the political divide to the other may be, it still amounts to a gross betrayal of the confidence voters had placed in him in electing him to office. The front benches of our parliament on both sides are not short of these cross over exponents.

The toil and sweat expended, not forgetting the tears and even blood, shed in electing a Sri Lankan politician to office in a closely contested election is best known to political workers involved. Yet politicians cross the divide with sheer nonchalance  at times not even  informing – quite apart from consulting – his or her supporters for selfish gain rather than the benefit of the people.

Cross overs are a feature of parliamentary democracies that have their roots in the mother of all parliaments, the Westminster parliament. It developed through centuries where politicians asserted their individual independence of their parties and leaders presumably for the greater good of the people.

That is what those who ‘crossed over’ – technically they remain on the same government side in the parliament chamber – are saying. Maithripala Sirisena and those who announced shifting their allegiance from the UPFA government to a nameless common front stated the objective is to destroy the executive Presidential System, which they say has been the cause of ruination of Sri Lanka.

How pragmatic they have been in their approach and thinking can only be judged by events after the presidential election.

Going over to the other side, in theory, should be decided on matters of principle. It should not be for personal gain even though lofty principles and personal interests get confused quite often.

Like in very many aspects of parliamentary democracy there are no hard and fast rules spelled out regarding legislators who decide to leave their political parties and to take up contrary positions. This provides political freedom to elected representatives to a very great degree rather than if strict rules are written out. But it also leaves room for political exploitation and corruption such as what is happening in some countries with poor economies and little political traditions.

Of course legislators in old and developed democracies are not always paragons of political morality who play by the rules of the book and are known for their political horse deals. But it is not always possible because of an alert media and some political traditions which are as good as written law.

The 1978 constitution of J. R. Jayewardene does not provide for an MP who resigns or is sacked from his party to hold office but provide for an appeal to the Supreme Court.

The decisions of the court have given wide consideration to violation of human rights and quite a lot of MPs sacked by their parties for various offences such as violation of party discipline are now leading lights of their rivals in the House.

The ability of those who cross over to hold on to office has resulted in a distortion from those elected on party tickets. Before the Sirisena led cross over the government composition which was 64 per cent of elected MPs had risen to 72.4 per cent while 23 per cent of elected opposition MPs crossed over.

Should representation of political parties in parliament be solely a reflection of the wishes of the electorate or a reflection also influenced by decisions of the Supreme Court? Of course the court cannot be faulted because the Constitution has cast the burden of deciding whether an MP should be sacked or not on it.

In deciding the fate of MPs sacked by their parties judges have pointed out to the need for better party constitutions. In fact it is doubtful whether some parties follow a constitution or their leader or have a constitution at all.

Political parties, while attempting to improve the constitution of the country, should also improve their own constitutions.