|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
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
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
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
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
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.