Parliament has become something like a pond infested with frogs during monsoon rains. It is full of croaking and leaps. The bush telegraph has it that some more political jumps are likely to happen in the next few weeks. The incidence of crossovers is so high that JVP Parliamentary Group Leader Wimal Weerawansa recently made a tongue-in-cheek request in the House that an electronic board be put up at the entrance to Parliament indicating the strength of the Opposition and the government each day! A wag says it will have to be updated every hour, if not every minute, on the day of a crucial vote.
However, political pole-vaulting has apparently come to be taken for granted and turncoats are going great guns. Today, our main news item says Speaker W. J. M. Lokubandara has told a private television channel that he sees nothing wrong with defections. Owing to the Proportional Representation System that brings about weak governments, crossovers have become the order of the day and the Speaker seems to be going by the old adage: `What can`t be cured must be endured.`
Interestingly, while the Speaker was making that observation on Monday, Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith, who appeared on another television channel, happened to cite political crossovers in support of his argument that religious conversions were in order so long as no unethical means were adopted to induce them. But, the problem is how to find if conversions/crossovers are dosh-induced or not.
Never mind religious converts. Politicians do nothing for nothing. They cross over either for money or positions. Only a few of them defect once in a way in a huff due to some injustice?perceived or real. Although the Speaker has sought to discount the allegation that bribes are the reason for defections, his own party, the UNP has accused the government of having tried to bribe some of its MPs to vote for the recently ratified budget. The government has accused the UNP of offering huge amounts of money to engineer crossovers from its ranks. So, the two main parties are convinced that there is prima facie evidence of bribery and corruption against each other.
We are not short of non governmental organisations that swing into action at the drop of a hat. One of them recently challenged the controversial admission of a ministerial brat, who had been remanded over a drunken brawl, to a private hospital. Some of them have, to their credit, successfully fought legal battles against successive governments. Will civil society take up the issue of bribery charges that the government and the Opposition traded in the run-up to the final budget vote?
The two parties should be made to name the persons who offered bribes and the Commission to Investigate Bribery and Corruption moved against the culprits. Unless civil society claiming moral high ground doesn`t do so, it has no moral right to advocate good governance and crusade against bribery and corruption.
Legally, it may be in order for MPs to cross over but as Wimal Weerawansa pointed out in Parliament during the budget debate, the people have begun derisively calling parliamentarians koti pahe kaeli (`pieces` worth fifty million rupees). Rathu Sahodarayas may be faulted for anything else but on this score they got it right.
The worst that can happen to democracy is for the people to lose faith in public institutions like the national legislature. Crossovers lead to the distortion of the people`s verdict at elections. In the present Parliament, some of the politicians the people wanted to keep in the Opposition are in the government as ministers and those whom they voted to power are in the Opposition.
As we said the other day, we are moving towards a government of Opposition MPs and an Opposition of government MPs. There are already 24 UNP MPs in the government and about 40 ruling party (UPFA) MPs in the Opposition.
Worse, it is being feared that before long there will be a government of ministers! (The people burdened with the huge cost of maintaining the jumbo Cabinet must be hoping and praying that there won`t be any more crossovers.)
Defections of the elected, we reckon, amount to the electors being taken for a right royal ride. A pertinent question in this regard may be whether the nomination papers submitted by political parties to the Elections Commissioner before an election and party manifestoes serve any useful purpose. For, upon being elected politicians become independent of their parties and act in contravention of the manifestoes they have subscribed to. Parties are fast becoming mere vehicles for politicians to enter Parliament. Manifestoes have already become a joke.
It is not being argued that parliamentarians must be put in the straitjacket of party loyalty, subjected to the `dictatorship of party leadership` and denied their right to act according to their conscience. But, who will believe it was really MPs` conscience that triggered an avalanche of defections in the past few years?
Harsh punishment is meted out to cricketers who fix matches. They are banned from playing for years and fined heavily. The culprits become pariahs in the eyes of the true lovers of the game. It is considered a crime as serious as treason. But, why is it that an attempt at `budget-fixing`?or fixing of some other vital bill?is not considered an offence of the same, if not higher, magnitude?
No amount of laws will be effective in dealing with the problem of crossovers and there is no way of ascertaining whether they are due to bribery or genuine grievances. Changing the existing PR system has been proposed as a remedy but even under the first-past-the-post system, it is being argued, there could be weak governments and crossovers.
In the final analysis, the real cause of the spate of crossovers we have witnessed of late is the absence of principles among politicians. Can the Speaker be faulted for having chosen to endure what cannot be cured?