Anuradhapura, Colombo, Galle, Hambantota, Kalutara, Kandy, Kegalle, Kurunegala, Mannar, Matale, Matara, Moneragala, Nuwara Eliya, Peace and Conflict, Polonnaruwa

Crossover and Mixed Public Reaction

The latest survey conducted by the Social Indicator, the survey research unit of the Centre for Policy Alternatives reveals that Sri Lankans express mixed opinion on the recent crossover by the 18 UNP parliamentarians along with 6 Muslim Congress MPs. 37% of people approve of this move while the same percentage disapproves. Interestingly, a quarter of Sri Lankans are either unaware of the crossover or do not have an opinion on whether to approve or disapprove of it; despite the chaos it has triggered in many corners that is yet to be settled.

In the wake of numerous interpretations and reinterpretation of the present political situation as a result of the recent crossover by the political elites, the authors of this article attempt to discuss how citizens perceive the crossover. The results of the latest poll, that was conducted by Social Indicator – Centre for Policy Alternatives are used to discuss the public views in this article. This survey was conducted amongst 1300 individuals residing in 17 districts using the interview technique. It should be noted that this survey was conducted Islandwide with the exception of the North & East and therefore does not capture the opinion of the Sri Lankan Tamil community.

Who’s hurt the most: UNPers or JVPers
Despite the justifying rationales put forward by the MPs who have crossed over, the present political accusations and counter accusations indicate that the crossover has hurt many parties who lost their MPs as well as who lost their political positions. If we were to look at the UNP itself, it lost a group of heavy weights including its deputy leader as a result of the recent crossover. Also it led the opposition leader Mr. Wickramasinghe to a new battle in order to retain the opposition leadership from the JVP; a party that has shown a remarkable capacity in mobilizing the masses against any ruling party. The present government too, is faced with issues resulting from the crossover. President Rajapakse’s main electoral ally, the JVP, permanently walked into the opposition while vowing to topple the Government, accusing the government of going against the electoral mandate, it received in November 2005. Not only that, but this parliamentarian exodus triggered a battle between the president and the two ministers, Mr. Mangala Samaraweera and Mr. Sripathi Suriarachchi, who have done tremendous work in bringing President Mahinda Rajapakse into office. On one hand the crossovers shook the status quo of the government while on the other hand it annulled the memorandum of understanding signed between the SLFP and the UNP even before its ink dried up. In addition, this disappointed the groups who were optimistic and overjoyed about the rare opportunity of a southern consensus.

The disapproval of the crossover is highest amongst the JVP loyalists – 68% disapprove while 15% approve of it. Perhaps this could be a reflection of the feeling of humiliation that they are undergoing after the SLFP sidelined them ignoring the crucial role they performed at the elections. Amongst the UNPers, only 48% disapprove of its own party members crossing to the SLFP while 34% of them could not decide whether to approve or disapprove of it. However, 18% of the UNPers approve the crossover. While on one hand this reflects the frustration of the UNPers with their leadership on the party reforms, on the other hand this is a clear indication of the confused status of the UNPers in the aftermath of losing a group of the most senior members of the party. Interestingly, this survey does not indicate that the SLFPers are over-jubilant about the newly captured elephant herd. This is apparent as only 50% of them approve of the crossover while 30% disapprove.

Crossover for Democracy or Vise Versa:
In the present electoral system, more primacy has been given to the parties than to the MPs. When selecting candidates for an election, most members are at the mercy of the party leaders. Even after being elected to the parliament, MPs will have to support the party decision rather than acting on their conscience. In this context, MPs do not have much option other than crossing over to another party that allows them to voice the concerns of their communities or adhere to one’s conscience. Therefore, MPs crossing over to another party can be considered as an expression of democracy that one may want to practice. This was not the first time where MPs crossed over to another party in the parliament and neither, we suppose, the last time. However, when analyzing the history of crossing over, usually it has been the opposition MPs who crossover to the ruling party instead of otherwise. Some get cabinet portfolios with other privileges while others allegedly receive huge sums of money. Therefore, it is very difficult to decide whether it is principle or perks that matter when deciding to crossover.

It is interesting see on what grounds people have approved or disapproved of the recent MP drain from the opposition to the ruling party. Amongst the people who approve of the recent crossover, 50% think that the move strengthens the Government and the President while 24% think that it would help the Government’s present war with the LTTE. Only 6% approve of the crossover on the basis that it is an expression of democracy. Interestingly, more SLFP loyalists than UNP loyalists approve of the recent crossover as it strengthens the Government and the president. Nevertheless, even for UNPers who support the crossover, the main reason for their approval is that it strengthens the Government and the president.

Amongst the people who disapprove of the recent crossover, 46% disapprove on the basis that it adds a bigger burden to the public due to the the increased number of ministerial posts. However, 9% disapprove on the basis that it damages democracy while 7% and 6% reject the crossover as it goes against the ‘Mahinda Chinthanaya’ and as it will lead to the abrogation of the SLFP- UNP MOU, respectively. It is interesting to see the varying reasons on which different party loyalists disapprove of the recent crossover. The primary reason for the SLFP and UNP loyalists to disapprove of the crossover is the fact that this will become a bigger burden for the already suffering Sri Lankans. However, JVP loyalists who disapprove of the crossover seem to have two main arguments. They think this is a clear violation of the ‘Mahinda Chinthanaya’ that they successfully advocated during the presidential elections and that the large number of present ministerial posts would (will?) increase the burden on the citizens. 29% of JVPers see the recent crossover as against the ‘Mahinda Chinthanaya’, while only 9% of SLFPers think that way.

Hence, when looking at the rationales for approvals and disapprovals, it seems that it is based on three arguments, namely forming a national government, waste of public funds and betraying the mandate received for the ‘Mahinda Chinthanaya’. According to Mr. Karu Jayasuriya, his motive of crossing over was the dire need to join the two main parties in the South, in order to solve the ethnic conflict and establish good governance. When analyzing the (often vague) interviews of President Rajapakse in the wake of the crossover, it seems that both the President and Mr. Jayasuriya are trying to voice that they have the same objectives. If it is the case we do not think anyone would disagree with such a noble objective. Nevertheless, unfortunately what we see in the government today does not reflect the stated objectives.

If the recent cross over means to assist the Government in solving the protracted ethnic conflict, then the Government must be keen on a negotiated settlement on the basis of a federal structure, because, the heavy weights of the reformists who crossed over were the individuals who led the UNP Government’s peace process that insisted on a solution within a federal united Sri Lanka. However, having had their cabinet portfolios, they have not yet shown any active engagement in such activities. Therefore, Minister Thissa Vitharana has to be engaged in a solo battle at the APRC, in bringing forward a constitutional transformation. Given the SLFP’s negative stand on the CFA and the passive commitment to constitutional arrangement, it is not clear what the role of UNP reformist is in transforming SLFPers to perceive for the federal solution that has been agreed in the Oslo Communique in 2003.

Given the wastage of public funds in maintaining the large number of ministries, which was the primary result of the crossover and the prevailing impunity that has high potential to worsen in months to come, do not show a rosy picture on good governance that Mr. Rajapakse and Mr. Jayasuriya are dreaming about. Therefore, the rationales given as the basis for the crossover are difficult for people to stomach.

However, it is undeniable that this recent crossover has made President Rajapakse stronger – a personage whose popularity is anyway on the boom in the context of the recent military victory in the East. Therefore, we believe President Rajapakse enjoys a stronger political position, empowering him to make drastic political decisions in order to solve the country’s ethnic conflict even if he is unable to clean the office of corrupt officials and politicians.

Therefore, in next few months public can witness the real impact of the cross over on the Sri Lankan society and how distance the reality from the claimed motives of the UNP reformists.

Pradeep Peiris and Rangani Ranasinghe are researchers of the Social Indicator, the survey research unit of the Centre for Policy Alternatives.