Chasing after cross-overs only a waste of time | Sunday Observer

Chasing after cross-overs only a waste of time

It is ironic that the two general secretaries of the two major political parties in the country, the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), Akila Viraj Kariyawasam and Dayasiri Jayasekara respectively, are like peas in a pod in their political journeys.

They both hail from the Kurunegala district. Both of them studied law. As youngsters knocking on the door of national politics, both contested the general elections in 2001 from the UNP but did not get elected to Parliament. They were however successful in 2004. At the 2010 general elections, Jayasekara had the most number of preference votes from the Kurunegala district for the UNP, Kariyawasam came second.

Since then, Jayasekara has migrated to the SLFP and within it, from the Mahinda Rajapaksa camp to the Maithripala Sirisena camp, after campaigning for Rajapaksa at the 2015 presidential election. Kariyawasam has remained in the UNP where he has carved a niche for himself being a staunch supporter of party leader and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Then, in recent weeks both Jayasekara and Kariyawasam have been busy calling for explanations from party members for allegedly violating party discipline. It was Kariyawasam who fired the first shot. He called for explanations from non-Cabinet Ministers Sujeewa Senasinghe and Ajith Perera for allegedly criticising the party and its leadership in public. Ostensibly, this is for publicly supporting the potential candidacy of Sajith Premadasa at the upcoming presidential election and declaring, informally, that Premadasa would be the next candidate.

Jayasekara followed suit shortly afterwards. He too has called for explanations from five party members, namely, A. H. M. Fowzie, Vijith Wijayamuni Soyza, Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena, S. B. Dissanayake and Dilan Perera. They are all accused of violating party discipline. Among them the latter two have publicly pledged their loyalty to the offshoot of the SLFP, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and its presidential candidate, Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Both, Kariyawasam and Jayasekara have had their say. Whether they would have their way remains to be seen. That is because enforcing party discipline has become an unenviable task for political parties faced with parliamentarians who switch loyalties so much so that most parties don’t even attempt to do so any more.

The fact remains that because of the proportional representation system of elections in this country, voters vote for the party first and preference a candidate of their choice later. As such, a parliamentarian owes his election to the political party he represents. Hence the argument that, if a parliamentarian defects from that party to another, he no longer has a right to represent that party, and therefore, the seat it ‘owns’ in Parliament.

This concept was first put to the test more than twenty-five years ago when Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake spearheaded an impeachment motion against then President Ranasinghe Premadasa and were expelled from the UNP. Athulathmudali and Dissanayake challenged their expulsion in court but the Supreme Court upheld their expulsion after a plethora of legal arguments, holding that the UNP had followed due procedure in doing so.

If memory serves us right, this is the only occasion where a political party has succeeded in expelling defectors, although there have been many attempts to do so subsequently. Some of the more ‘famous’ cases include Tilak Karunaratne challenging his expulsion from the SLFP in 1993, Sarath Amunugama and others challenging their expulsions from the UNP in 2000, Basheer Segu Dawood challenging his expulsion from the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) in 2002 and Ameer Ali challenging his expulsion from the SLMC in 2006. It was in the latter that the then Chief Justice Sarath Silva made the sweeping statement that any expulsion of a parliamentarian constitutes an ‘extreme action’ and the reasons for such an expulsion “have to transcend personal and parochial considerations and should rest on a broader foundation of the public good”.

That is an extreme statement indeed and has since put paid to most attempts by political parties to discipline errant party members. It was perhaps this verdict that emboldened Silva’s good friend Mahinda Rajapaksa, when he was President, to engineer the cross-over of eighteen UNP parliamentarians, so he could pass the infamous 18th Amendment to the Constitution which removed the two-term limit on an individual holding the Office of President.

Silva has since publicly regretted some of his decisions as Chief Justice and apologised to the country for them. He has however been silent on whether this decision too falls into that category of verdicts delivered by him.

With presidential and general elections in the offing there will becross-overs galore in the coming weeks and months. In any event, if a parliamentarian challenges his expulsion in court, by the time the legal arguments are heard and a verdict delivered this Parliament would most probably have been dissolved. So, we can expect the cross-over season to begin in earnest shortly.

There was an era when politicians such as Ronnie de Mel were ridiculed for their history of cross-overs. De Mel, the country’s longest serving Finance Minister in the government of J.R. Jayewardene, began his career as a backbencher in the SLFP under Sirima Bandaranaike and ended his political career returning to the SLFP under Chandrika Kumaratunga.

However, in this day and age, De Mel’s antics are put to shame by the dexterity of the likes of S. B. Dissanayake who has been in political parties under the successive leaderships of Chandrika Kumaratunga, Ranil Wickremesinghe, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena and now, again under Rajapaksa.

When Dissanayake could not get elected to Parliament in 2015, Sirisena attracted much public criticism by appointing Dissanayake and others like him to Parliament through the National List. Today, Dissanayake has abandoned the President in his hour of need and ‘returned’ to Rajapaksa. Despite Dayasiri Jayasekara’s threats of disciplinary action the chances are that he would go unpunished yet again. Chasing errant parliamentarians for switching loyalties may make bold headlines but they are necessarily a waste of time. If Jayasekara or Kariyawasam disagree, they can try roping in the big fish instead of going for the small fry: Jayasekara can call for an explanation from Mahinda Rajapaksa not for merely joining another political party but becoming its leader and Kariyawasam can call for explanation from Sajith Premadasa for declaring that he will contest the presidential election, when his party has made no such decision!