Last week’s Supreme Court (SC) ruling that the SLMC’s decision to strip its MP and current Environment Minister Nazeer Ahamed of his party membership is valid and lawful has given a real scare to political turncoats, who have been going places all these years by striking deals with governments to secure ministerial posts, etc. When Ahamed moved the SC against his expulsion from the SLMC, it was widely thought that he would prevail in the legal battle, as many other defectors before him had done.

The SJB, which is still reeling from the defection of some of its prominent members such as Manusha Nanayakkara and Harin Fernando to the government, has welcomed the SC ruling in question, and is said to studying it with a view to initiating action against its dissidents a la the SLMC, which is a constituent of the SJB-led coalition.

A previous SC judgment in favor of crossovers, during Sarath N Silva’s tenure as the Chief Justice in the mid-2000s, led to an increase in defections after parliamentary elections, and governments have been able to muster even two-thirds majorities in Parliament at the expense of the Opposition parties. Crossovers have managed to escape expulsion from their parties by being appointed ministers, all these years, but luck has run out for them at long last. There are some MPs who remain ministers whichever party comes to power thanks to their crossover skills. It is only natural that the SC decision has been greeted with delight by the Opposition.

A crossover is thought to be an act of treachery in that the MPs who defect do exactly the opposite of what their voters expect them to do, and there have been calls for anti-crossover legislation for the past so many years, but no party evinces a keen interest in introducing them after being ensconced in power, for it is the government in power that gain from crossovers more than the Opposition in most cases; the ruling party or coalition has the wherewithal to lure the MPs into switching their allegiance. However, there have been some instances where the Opposition stood to gain from mass defections. Crossovers brought down governments and enabled the Opposition’s return to power in 1964, 2001, and 2015. On all those occasions, it was the SLFP-led governments that fell, and the beneficiary was the UNP as well as its allies.

The world’s first woman Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s government lost its parliamentary majority and collapsed when a group of its MPs broke away in 1964. About 37 years later, Chandrika Bandaranaike’s government fell due to mass crossovers.  In 2015, too, it was mainly defections that led to the defeat of President Mahinda Rajapaksa in that year’s presidential election, and the subsequent fall of the UPFA government. Defections also played a significant role in bringing about the epoch-making political change last year, when the ruling SLPP became weak with some of its prominent MPs voting with their feet, after falling out with the party leadership. The SLPP has not yet recovered from the crossovers from its ranks although it has been able to retain a parliamentary majority by enticing some Opposition MPs into switching their allegiance to it.

The political ramifications of the above-mentioned SC judgment must be a disconcerting proposition for the government, which has retained a working majority in the parliament with the help of crossovers so much so that speculation is rife in political circles the political parties which have lost their MPs to the SLPP-UNP administration might be in a position to leverage the judicial decision in question to carry out a counterattack, come the next budget vote. The government pretends to be unfazed by the prospect of Minister Ahamed, who was elected on the SJB ticket, losing his parliamentary seat, but its leaders must be having sleepless nights. If the defectors in its ranks are expelled from Parliament, it will lose a majority.

It is being argued in some quarters that Minster Ahamed is likely to seek a review of the judicial decision by a fuller bench of the SC. If he refrains from doing so, as the SLMC thinks, the SJB and others may be able to deal with their dissident MPS in the government in a similar manner, and when the 2024 Budget is put to the vote, there could be a situation similar to what we saw in 2007 with the then UNP-led Opposition went all out to deprive the Mahinda Rajapaksa government of a majority and thereby topple it, but to no avail.

Minister Mahinda Amaraweera has said the SC ruling at issue has had an unsettling effect on the MPs who have defected to the government. Ironically, he himself would have been one of the worried MPs, if not for SLFP leader and former President Maithripala Sirisena’s recent about-turn; the SLFP moved to sack its dissident MPs including Amraweera and Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva for joining forces with the government, but Sirisena has since changed his mind because he has to be in the good books of President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who alone could prevent criminal proceedings from being instituted against him over the Easter Sunday terror attacks as per the Presidential Commission of Inquiry, which probed the carnage. Currently, the SLFP MPs who closed ranks with President Wickremesinghe in violation of a party decision are safe, but Dayasiri Jayasekera, MP, who stood by the party and refused to join the government, has been stripped of the post of SLFP General Secretary and suspended from the party! Jayasekera has accused Sirisena of trying to hitch the latter’s wagon to President Wickremesinghe for political expediency.

The SC judgment has gone down well with pro-democracy activists and organizations. Former Chairperson of HRCSL Prof. Deepika Udagama has been quoted by the media as saying that it will help ethicize Sri Lankan politics. She has said: “The lack of democracy within political parties and, very certainly, the unethical practices of politicians have ruined our political system. Sadly, the legal system itself facilitates these transgressions to a considerable extent.

“Against that backdrop, the recent judgment of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka in the Nazeer Ahmad v. SLMC case is a boon to democracy-loving citizens of Sri Lanka. The crux of the Court’s judgment is that while political parties must follow principles of natural justice before expelling members, those members who seek refuge in the purity of those principles must themselves be principled and act in good faith. Here the MP was found to have knowingly flouted his party’s policies by voting for the 2022 Appropriations Bill. The MP has not claimed that he voted for the Bill as a matter of conscience having discussed the matter with the party. This judgment can go a long way in ethicizing the unholy political culture of Sri Lanka if we the citizens put it to good use. In the same spirit we must also continue to demand that an MP who crosses over will lose one’s seat. Opportunistic party-crossovers by elected representatives is a grave violation of the sovereignty of voters. It is a travesty that the legal system permits such violations. The law must change.”

Sri Lanka’s political culture is so rotten that it is doubtful whether a judicial decision alone will help cleanse it, but the SC ruling that has made turncoats squirm holds out some hope.