Last week, the Supreme Court delivered a landmark judgment that could turn Sri Lanka’s political equation topsy-turvy, provided political parties study the verdict and act in an astute manner.

The highest court in the land declared that the expulsion of Naseer Ahamed, who is also Minister of Environment in the Ranil Wickremesinghe Cabinet, by his party, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) was valid. By virtue of this decision and according to terms set out in the Constitution, this would mean that Ahamed would be compelled to forfeit his seat in Parliament.

This is because the electoral process specified in the 1978 Constitution prescribes a proportional representation system of voting where parties are allocated a number of seats in each electoral district according to the number of votes they polled in that district. Parliamentarians derive their right to election first and foremost because of the votes polled by the party. Their election, subject to an adequate number of preference votes, is a secondary factor.

Based on this premise it can be readily argued that it would be relatively easy for political parties to discipline their MPs but it has not been so. Almost thirty years ago, then President Ranasinghe Premadasa was able to withstand a legal challenge and successfully expel the likes of Lalith Athulathmudali, Gamini Dissanayake and G.M. Premachandra from the United National Party (UNP).

Later however both the UNP and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) found it tough going to expel dissidents. Tilak Karunaratne who criticised his party leader Sirima Bandaranaike successfully challenged his expulsion from the SLFP and retained his seat in Parliament.

A plethora of cases followed where UNP MPs, then in the opposition, defected to join the government headed firstly by Chandrika Kumaratunga and later by Mahinda Rajapaksa. They all had disciplinary proceedings initiated against them by the UNP declared null and void by courts. Among the beneficiaries of those decisions were Sarath Amunugama, Rohitha Bogollagama, Keheliya Rambukwella and Mahinda Samarasinghe. Ironically, Bogollagama, Rambukwella and Samarasinghe are all serving under Wickremesinghe, the leader who attempted to expel them, in various capacities now!

It is also interesting to note that, in one of the very first cases that put to test the right of a party to expel a MP for violation of party discipline, current Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena was involved, along with another MP, Chandrakumar Wijegunawardena. They were expelled by then President J.R. Jayewardene for voting against the 13th Amendment in Parliament. The Supreme Court upheld their expulsion.

However, in cases filed in later years, the verdict has almost always been in favour of the dissenting parliamentarian, mostly because of a judgment pronounced by then Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva who held that a parliamentarian, as an elected representative, should have the right exercise his vote in Parliament according to the dictates of his conscience and not along party lines.

Also contributing to the failure of parties to successfully expel dissenting MPs were numerous flaws in disciplinary procedures. This came to the fore very recently when SLFP leader Maithripala Sirisena attempted to expel Nimal Siripala de Silva and Mahinda Amaraweera for accepting portfolios in Wickremesinghe’s cabinet. That was unsuccessful as the court found that proper processes had not been followed by the party.

However, the verdict on Ahamed will be tested shortly. In this context, it is important to note that unlike most other members of the SLMC who contested under the banner of the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), Ahamed contested the August 2020 general election under the SLMC list. This allowed the General Secretary of the party to initiate legal action against him for violating party discipline by voting for the budget in December 2021.

This has relevance for the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). A number of its MPs have become ‘independent’ in recent months and have voted against the party’s stance. They include high-profile politicians such as Dullas Alahapperuma, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and Dilan Perera. Already, SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam has sounded a warning, saying the party will be exploring the option of taking disciplinary action against them. It is to be noted that G.L. Peiris should also be considered in the same category but Kariyawasam has omitted mentioning him by name.

Kariyawasam has been quick to note that although the likes of Wimal Weerawansa, Udaya Gammanpila and Vasudeva Nanayakkara have also crossed party lines in their voting in Parliament, the SLPP will not be able to take disciplinary action against them as they are from different political parties and joined the SLPP only for the purposes of the election, thus retaining their right to dissent.

The government, though losing Ahamed as a minister, still has reason to be happy about the verdict. That is because it could potentially allow the SLPP to commence disciplinary proceedings against the likes of Alahapperuma, Yapa and Perera (and even Peiris), with expulsion being the ultimate objective.

It is debatable whether these processes and the legal challenges they will inevitably entail, especially if they are to be strictly adhered to, can be completed prior to the next general election. Nevertheless, it could be a significant handicap for those who have already dissented and a strong deterrent for those considering braking away from the mainstream party.

Those in the SJB should also be studying the Naseer Ahamed verdict intently. Three of its stalwarts, Harin Fernando, Manusha Nanayakkara and Diana Gamage have defied the party and joined Wickremesinghe’s government, the former duo as Cabinet ministers and the latter a State Minister. They will be clear targets for disciplinary proceedings and can potentially face expulsion but again, whether these proceedings can all be concluded in a timely manner remains to be seen.

Regardless, the Naseer Ahamed verdict is a significant milestone. Political parties had all but given up on acting against errant MPs due to the spate of successful legal challenges against expulsion. Even the SJB did not initially pursue proceedings against Fernando and Nanayakkara for this reason. Now, the tables have turned: this verdict restores faith in such processes, provided parties adhere to the due processes to the letter.

Cross-overs for personal benefit (and often for financial gain) have been the bane of Sri Lankan politics in recent years. If the verdict on Naseer Ahamed reverses that trend, it would have served its purpose, regardless of Ahamed’s eventual political fate.