The seat does not belong to the MP; it belongs to the party and voters
n elderly gentleman, a United National Party supporter, cast his preference vote for a teledrama actress who contested the 2010 parliamentary elections from the UNP, for he felt she was being unfairly vilified by the then government leaders who suddenly projected her character as a ‘a bad woman’ after she played the lead role as a do-gooder for more than a hundred episodes. She was, however, elected to parliament, largely on the sympathy of voters, including many elderly people who exercise their franchise not in anticipation of any benefits for them but in the hope that the future generation will have a better Sri Lanka. But she betrayed her voters, when she crossed the floor and joined the Mahinda Rajapaksa government after remaining some months in the opposition as a UNP parliamentarian.
As Sri Lanka finds itself in a constitutional quagmire following the controversial swearing-in of a new prime minister by the President while the sitting prime minister insists he is the rightful holder of the post, the absence of an anti-defection law is seen to be the major curse that undermines democracy and the people’s mandate.
As the numbers game for the decisive 113 target becomes dirtier by the hour, nothing makes such a huge mockery of democracy and the voters the biggest losers than the floor crossing, frog jumping or monkey acts of members of Sri Lanka’s 225-seat parliament.
As MPs switch sides amid allegations that they are being bought over for hundreds of millions of rupees, the voters feel betrayed. In an audio clip posted on social media, a young smart voter was heard demanding from his MP who switched sides and was sworn in as a deputy minister that he be paid Rs. 2,900 – the amount was worked out by dividing the money the politico is alleged to have received by the number of preferential votes he polled.
There’s no gainsaying that Sri Lanka’s democracy is party-based. At the start of an election campaign, a political party presents before the voters its manifesto, outlining its policies and the programmes it intends to implement if elected to office. In the absence of a mechanism to hold the parties accountable to a judicial authority for the pledges they make in their election manifestoes, the parties do promise the sun and the moon. Whether they fulfill their promises is another matter. But the issue here is that the people do vote for a party rather than for an individual, for, at a parliamentary election, the main purpose is to elect a new ruling party or reelect the party in office. Our voting system is also structured accordingly. First we cast our vote for the party and then cast our preferences for the candidate of our choice.
Under the circumstances, if MPs elected from one party switch their allegiance to another party, it is sheer betrayal, unless, of course, they are required to do so by a petition by their electorates with the number of signatures being, at least, equal to the preferential votes they received at the election.
In Britain, though floor crossing is permitted, the present trend is MPs, instead of crossing the floor, resign their seats, publicly announce they have joined another party and stand for by-elections. Often, the MP who crosses over loses the seat.
In the United States, elected representatives can take an independent stance on any issue, although they come under the party whip. In the US, both major parties encourage their opponents to jump to their sides, but, in such instances, research shows that the voters were furious and records show that the ‘frog’ had often lost the reelection bid. Research carried out on floor crossing in developed democracies underscores that what matters more to the electorate is not the candidate but the party and its policies. If a candidate becomes bigger than the party, it’s populism or cultism that distorts democracy.
In Australia, voters take to the streets shouting slogans such as “Give back our seat” when an elected member switches sides. An MP holding on to the seat and supporting a party which was not the choice of the people who elected the MP is seen in developed democracies as indulging in an act of fraud committed upon the voters.
When money or other inducements such as cabinet posts are involved, then the fraud amounts to a murder of democracy. The seat strictly belongs to the party or to the voters. It is in this context that the need for anti-defection laws assumes significance.
Sri Lanka’s democracy will remain defective until and unless the country strengthens its anti-defection laws or brings in constitutional amendments, making party jumping illegal. We need to ensure that the sanctity of the august assembly is not tainted by bribery and corruption and the earlier this is done the better it is for the survival of our democracy. Otherwise, what we call Sri Lankan democracy will only be a charade.
India, the world’s largest democracy, passed its anti-defection law as a constitutional amendment in 1985 with the intention of ending bribery and corruption at the highest level and the ugly practice of inducing defection with the reward of ministerial positions and perks. According to the Indian law, members of parliament or state legislatures are deemed to have defected if they either voluntarily resign from their parties or disobeyed the directives of the party leadership on a vote. Even independent members are disqualified if they join a political party because the spirit of the law, as interpreted by a five-bench Supreme Court ruling in 1992, is to respect the electors’ preference of the party. During the hearing, the right of an MP to defect was defended in terms of the constitutionally guaranteed right of free speech, but the court held that the anti-defection law did not violate any rights, freedoms, or the basic structure of parliamentary democracy.
Sri Lanka has an anti-defection clause in the constitution. According to Article 99(13), where a Member of Parliament ceases, by resignation, expulsion or otherwise, to be a member of a recognised political party or independent group on whose nomination paper his name appeared at the time of his becoming such Member of Parliament, his seat shall become vacant upon the expiration of a period of one month from the date of his ceasing to be such member.
However, the vacation of the seat is subject to the provision that allows the Supreme Court to interpret the validity of a party’s decision to expel an MP. Different Supreme Court benches – in the Athulathmudali, Ameer Ali, Amunugama and Piyasena cases, for instance -- have interpreted the exception provision differently and their rulings have only increased the call to amend the law to plug the loopholes.
However, in 2015 the move to strengthen the constitutional provision on anti-defection came a cropper when the Mahinda Rajapaksa-led opposition made the withdrawal of it as a condition to extend its support for the 19th Amendment. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, one of the prime movers of the 19th amendment, had to give in to get the bulk of the 19th amendment passed. But he must be ruing this mistake or the missed opportunity, having known that ‘Joint Opposition’ leaders are past masters in fishing out rival party MPs with inducements of ministerial perks and allegedly money. We could have been spared of this moment of turmoil in our quest to establish democracy in our country, if we had included anti-defection provisions in the 19th Amendment.