Traffic on crossover highway
It was the founder of the German Empire, Otto Von Bismarck who said that politics is the art of the possible. While this is an accepted axiom in present day Sri Lankan politics, some recent happenings in this country would have made even Bismarck blush.

We refer to the recent crossover of S.B. Dissanayake from the opposition United National Party (UNP) to the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). There would, of course, be those who argue that Dissanayake was only practising what Bismarck preached; nevertheless, the circumstances in which Dissanayake returned to the SLFP raises many questions about the morality of present day politics.

We are not contesting the Dissanayake crossover per se. Indeed, before Dissanayake decided to return to the SLFP, Parliamentarian Nandimithra Ekanayake crossed over to the government ranks and Wijeyadasa Rajapakhse crossed over to the UNP. And there is speculation that there can be more crossovers.
In fact, crossovers by themselves are a healthy exercise. The first noteworthy crossover in this country was that of S.W. R. D. Bandaranaike, and if not for that bold move, there would be no SLFP today. And, President Rajapaksa’s father D.A. Rajapaksa was among those who crossed over with Bandaranaike on that historic day.
Since then, there have been many crossovers, for a variety of reasons. Names like Saumyamoorthy Thondaman, Ronnie de Mel and M.H.M. Ashraff come readily to mind. But recently, the traffic on the crossover highway has increased considerably, prompting us to re-examine this now ubiquitous political phenomenon.

Whereas politicians of a bygone era crossed over to the other side over differences over policies and principles, we seldom see such political honesty and integrity today. Of course, some excuse such as ‘strengthening the hands of the leader’ is trotted out, but that is hardly convincing.
A primary flaw in the present day crossovers is that parliamentarians are nominated to the Legislature by the political party that they represent, based on the number of votes that the party received for an electoral district, under the Proportional Representation (PR) system.

Therefore, it would appear immoral, if not downright inappropriate, for an MP to be nominated to Parliament based on the number of votes received by Party A, only for him to switch allegiance to party B on some pretext or other, which in this day and age, translates into obtaining the perks and privileges of Cabinet office.
A careful reading of the 1978 Constitution reveals that permitting such crossovers was furthest in the minds of the architects of that masterpiece. However, when political parties attempted to expel their members who dared to cross over, they faced many legal obstacles, which culminated in a court ruling that upheld the crossovers.
This is a knotty legal issue no doubt, but there is another, more sinister implication in allowing a free reign for crossovers. That is the issue of corruption.

A politician who is corrupt, could easily evade scrutiny and subsequent punishment by switching sides at a crucial juncture. The usual practice is for all inquiries against that politician to be withdrawn forthwith- in exchange for changing loyalties and serving new political masters.

As a result, an already corrupt political culture becomes even more debased by encouraging the survival of the unscrupulous. We need to objectively question ourselves whether this is what is happening in this country today.
There was even a time when it was rumoured that crossovers were instigated simply by offering financial rewards to potential defectors. Many would recall that parliamentarians were referred to by the price tag they were reportedly bought for, and that is not a practice that we can condone.

In the recent past, again because of the PR system, we have seen a spate of ‘unstable’ governments. The ruling party clings on to power with a wafer thin majority in Parliament. In such situations- especially if one were to follow the Bismarckian tenet of politics being the art of the possible- there is, naturally, a tendency to swell your ranks by inveigling a few parliamentarians from the opposition camp.

For example, in the current Parliament, no less than 25 members elected on UNP votes are sitting on the government side. That may be a tribute to the political astuteness of the President, and it is safe to say that, if not for the support of these MPs, the ruling UPFA government have collapsed and military victory over the LTTE would not have been possible.

However, it is natural in this instance, for the UNP to feel aggrieved. But it may well be that someday in the future, it will be the SLFP that will be at the receiving end- and the UNP will then gleefully accept any crossovers that come their way!

What all this suggests is that we now have a system of government that is far from perfect. And, permitting free-for-all crossovers from one party to another is one glaring imperfection in this system. It is time then, while we are looking at Constitutional and electoral reforms, in the process of evolving a solution to our ethnic issues, to take a long, hard look at political crossovers as well.