By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Mirror
Colombo, October 24: Sri Lanka’s Environment Minister and MP of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) Naseer Ahamed was recently ousted from his parliamentary membership by the Supreme Court for defying the party whip and joining the government of President Ranil Wickremesinghe. This brought back into public focus the controversial, if not unsavoury, phenomenon of inter-party crossovers in Sri Lanka.
The Supreme Court unseated Naseer Ahamed on the grounds that he had repeatedly violated his party’s stated rules on parliamentary voting, despite being given enough opportunity to retrace his steps. The ruling has been widely hailed as the right approach given the laws of the land.
Even so, it will not be out of place to re-examine crossovers from the point of view of democracy. One could certainly argue that crossing over to another party midstream weakens party solidarity and threatens the party system itself. The problem is acute when the party system is considered necessary for the functioning of modern large-scale democracies.
And the stability of parties is all the more important in countries like Sri Lanka where the electoral system is based on parties. In Sri Lanka, citizens vote for lists of candidates placed before them by political parties. They can give preferential votes to individual candidates within the party list.
Since it is the political party which puts up candidates (other than independents) and it is the political party which funds the candidates, candidates are expected to be loyal to the party. Abandoning it for whatever reason, good or bad, and joining another party in the legislature is considered both illegal and unethical. To do so either for financial gain or office like a ministership, is considered particularly despicable. It is also seen as an act of betrayal of the people who voted for the party in question.
But there are others who argue that insisting on party loyalty, no matter what the issue, does not befit a democracy where freedom of thought and action should be available to all, including legislators.
It is also argued that the matter of expulsion should be decided not by the party hierarchy but by the voters who elected the defecting legislator. The legislator’s action could be adjudged either through a by-election or in the next election, it is suggested.
To let the decision on punitive action rest entirely with the party authority (say the General Secretary) amounts to accepting dictatorship of the party. In light of this argument, crossovers cannot be seen as being pernicious. It could well be seen as an attribute of democracy.
Crossovers have been there in all democracies from the earliest times. They are infrequent in Western democracies but frequent in the new democracies such as India and Sri Lanka.
Countries do have anti-defection laws and India and Sri Lanka are among them. The White Commonwealth countries see no need for such curbs because they view them as undemocratic.
In the US, party-switching was a noticeable phenomenon when Ronald Reagan was President. Multiple Democrats in the US Congress from the Southern States moved to the Republican side in line with the sweeping political realignment coursing through the US South.
In the UK, there is no rule requiring resignation if an MP leaves one political party for another. This is in accordance with the dictum of the 18 th.,Century political philosopher Edmund Burke that an MP is a “representative of the people and not a delegate of a party.”
Winston Churchill left the Conservative Party in May 1904, joined the Liberal Party and became a minister in 1905. In the 1924 General Election, he was elected as a Constitutionalist but became Chancellor of the Exchequer in a Conservative Government following that election.
In 2019, eleven British MPs defected from the Conservative and Labour parties to form the “Change UK” party. In September 2019, the ruling Conservative party lost its working majority when Phillip Lee MP defected to the Liberal Democrats during the first speech of the new Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Historically, the British House of Commons has acted on the principle that while party labels matter, MPs are free to develop their own arguments once elected.
In 2010, it was suggested that MPs should resign and go for a by-election if they defected to a different party. But the Government of the day said that such a change would be “a major constitutional reform of the role of Members of Parliament and their “independence” and that it had “no plans to do that”.
In December 2014, Alberta in Canada witnessed an extraordinary crossover: Danielle Smith, the Leader of the Official Opposition and eight of her MLAs, all of the Wildrose Party, crossed the floor to join the ruling Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta.
Most of the Western democracies have not enact an anti-crossover or anti-defection law partly because crossovers have not been that many and partly because they are not considered unethical. But in India and Sri Lanka, crossovers have been rampant, and both countries have enacted laws to discourage it.
Indian and Sri Lanka
However, in both India and Sri Lanka MPs and parties have found legal loopholes and political ways to evade the anti-defection law. The political culture here welcomes defectors as they have a use. The “saloon door” model enunciated by Mahinda Rajapaksa allows free movement of MPs from one party to another as part of normal democratic jockeying for power. It has stabilized governments or brought down governments as per the political need of the day.
In India, an anti-defection law was enacted in 1985 and made more stringent in 2003 as a result of a spate of defections in the late 1960s. Defections became rampant after the Congress party lost its dominance in the 1967 elections ushering in an era of no-holds-barred competitive politics between a multiplicity of non-dominant parties.
According to the 1969 Y.B.Chavan Committee’s report on crossovers between March 1967 and February 1968, at least 438 defections had occurred. And 157 out 376 Independents had joined various parties. The lure of office and money was playing havoc with party loyalty. Out of 210 defecting legislators of various States, 116 were lured with ministerial positions.
While some of these defections helped form stable governments, others toppled governments sometimes creating political uncertainties. However, defections were generally seen in poor-light.
During Rajiv Gandhi’s Premiership in 1985, India amended the constitution to enact an anti-defection law. As per that law, an MP or State legislator would lose his seat if he voluntarily gave up his membership of a political party or joined any other political party or abstained from any crucial voting contrary to the party whip.
But if two-thirds of the members of a legislature party merged with another party, MPs of that party would not be disqualified.
According to the Indian law, the Chairman or the Speaker of the House would have absolute power in deciding cases pertaining to the disqualification of members on grounds of defection.
Though the Indian law has succeeded in curbing mass defections to an extent, defections do take place frequently utilizing the loopholes in the law and also due to the partisan behaviour of the Speakers. Being nominees of the ruling party, Speakers tend to act in favour of the ruling party or the dominant political force of the day.
The courts generally have no say in the matter and even if they are approached, they tend to rule in favour of the dominant political force.
Under Sri Lankan law, a defecting legislator can stall or delay expulsion, through a District Court until the Supreme Court is invoked. Generally, defection cases get decided in favour of the defectors either on the grounds that proper procedures had not been followed or that norms of natural justice had not been observed.
Despite public criticism of crossovers, serious reform has not been considered or implemented (as in India). The reason is that every leader and political party needs to get defectors from other parties either to form a government or sustain a government or pull down a government. Capturing power and retaining power are the core and substance of politics. And in this game, both loyalty and disloyalty play an equally crucial role and are encouraged.
Since large-scale democracies cannot function without political parties, political parties cannot be wished away. And given the compulsions of party-centred democratic politics, crossovers are taken as a necessary evil.