By SR Balgopal
Recent political events have culminated in one member of the MSM party, which was a component of the Alliance de L’Avenir, crossing the floor to join the ranks of the government, with the enhanced status of Minister.
The other members of his party have left the Alliance de L’Avenir. “Crossing the floor” is a term of art and it is the term used to describe an MP’s decision to leave one political party to join another. Two notable examples from the United Kingdom, spanning over a period of over 100 years, are as follows:
In 1904, Sir Winston Churchill crossed the floor, leaving the Conservative Party to join the Liberal Party. He then returned to the Conservatives in the 1920s. The reason put forward by Sir Winston Churchill for crossing the floor was that he had become increasingly distant from the Conservative Party and had strongly criticized military expenditure proposals and restrictions on free trade.
On 23 December 1903 his Conservative Association in Oldham wrote to him setting out their no confidence in him. He offered to resign but continued to sit in Parliament. On 31 May 1904, he quietly entered the Commons’ chamber and instead of turning left to join the government benches, he turned right and sat next to Lloyd George on the Liberal benches. By ‘crossing the floor’, Churchill moved from one party to join another.
In 2007, Quentin Davies left the Conservatives to join Labour, arguing that his former party appeared “to have ceased collectively to believe in anything or to stand for anything”.
Objections to floor crossing can be manifold but arguably include the following –
(a) It is undemocratic in that it shows disrespect for the will of the people as expressed in regular democratic elections;
(b) It serves to corrupt the political system, in that it is possible for government to entice representatives from other parties by bribing them with government positions;
(c) Opposition leaders believe that floor crossing is constitutional theft, because the MP who crosses the floor takes a party’s seat away and gives it to another party, against the will of the voters. Nobody voted for that individual MP who crossed the floor, they voted for the party;
(d) Floor crossing is seen to have given rise to abuse and the protection of self-interest by individual politicians directly in conflict with the wishes of the people, and had effectively reduced the inclusive function of the electoral system;
(e) Floor crossing is not appropriate for consolidating democracy in a country;
(f) Floor crossing usually involves some ‘cheque-crossing’ because people are made all kinds of secret offers;
(h) The damaging impact of floor crossing is reflected on ever-increasing voter apathy and declining respect for Parliament and its institutions.
Floor-crossing has therefore potentially serious implications for democracy. Some jurisdictions have started to address their minds to this matter. In April 2006, Manitoba’s premier Gary Doer (NDP) proposed banning crossing the floor of the Manitoba legislature. The legislation would be the first of its kind in Canada and, according to Mr Doer, it “responds to the concern some voters have expressed over the high-profile defections of three federal MPs from their parties in just over two years” (Michelle Macafee, Proposed reforms would ban floor-crossing in Man., Canadian Press, April 11, 2006).
Laws against crossing the floor are sometimes not mere “laws”; they are often enshrined in national constitutions. To illustrate the nature of anti-defection legislation, Table 1, below reports constitutional provisions in a few countries:
Table 1: Protecting Parties with Anti-Defection Provisions in the Constitution
Belize, Article 59. Tenure of Office of Members
(1) Every member of the House of Representatives shall vacate his seat in the House at the next dissolution of the National Assembly after his election.
(2) A member of the House of Representatives shall also vacate his seat in the House—
(e) if, having been a candidate of a political party and elected to the House of Representatives as a candidate of that political party, he resigns from that political party or crosses the floor.
Namibia, Article 48. Vacation of Seats
(1) Members of the National Assembly shall vacate their seats:
(b) if the political party which nominated them to sit in the National Assembly informs the Speaker that such members are no longer members of such political party.
Nepal, Article 49. Vacation of Seats
(1) The seat of a Member of Parliament shall become vacant in the following circumstances:
(f) if the party of which he was a member when elected provides notification in the manner set forth by law that he has abandoned the party.
Nigeria, Article 68. Tenure of Seat of Members
(g) being a person whose election to the House was sponsored by a political party, he becomes a member of another political party before the expiration of the period for which that House was elected:
Seychelles, Article 81. Vacation of Seats
(1) A person ceases to be a member of the National Assembly and the seat occupied by that person in the Assembly shall become vacant—
27(h) if, in the case of a proportionally elected member—
(i) the political party which nominated the person as member nominates another person as member in place of the first-mentioned person and notifies the Speaker in writing of the new nomination;
(ii) the person ceases to be a member of the political party of which that person was a member at the time of the election;
Sierra Leone, Article 77. Tenure of Seats of Members of Parliament
(1) A Member of Parliament shall vacate his seat in Parliament—
(k) if he ceases to be a member of the political party of which he was a member at the time of his election to Parliament and he so informs the Speaker, or the Speaker is so informed by the Leader of that political party;
Singapore, Article 46
(2) The seat of a Member of Parliament shall become vacant—
(b) if he ceases to be a member of, or is expelled or resigns from, the political party for which he stood in the election;
It has to be borne in mind that there is no law which prevents floor crossing in Mauritius. Hon Jim Seetaram was perfectly within his legal rights to switch allegiance to the Labour Party. Further, Hon Seetaram was elected under the banner of the Alliance de L’Avenir as opposed to the MSM as a single party. It is arguable that he would not have been elected if he stood as an MSM candidate only. Conversely, had the MSM not given him an electoral “ticket” he would not have made it to the Alliance de L’Avenir’s list of candidates. Therefore, a moral issue arises as to whether Hon Seetaram was within the boundaries of morality by jettisoning his party.
We recall that some members of the Labour Party, in the context of the Medpoint case, stated that what is legal is not necessarily moral. Would they apply the same logic to Hon Seetaram’s floor crossing? Would they feel comfortable sitting next to him in Cabinet, the more so that his father had left the Labour Party for the MSM? Would the Labour Party stalwarts and highly competent persons of the caliber of Ms N Deerpalsing countenance that they are not in the Cabinet because of an MSM member has filled one vacancy there?
The other side of the coin is that the remaining eleven MSM MPs owe their seats in Parliament to Labour Party votes. To state the contrary would defy logic as in 2005, the MSM and MMM against the Labour Party-PMSD-MR Alliance only managed to get Ashock Jugnauth elected in Constituency No 8 and Ajay Guness elected in Constituency No 10. Would the MSM MPs be so brave as to go before the electorate and let the rural electorate decide if they deserve a seat in Parliament? Or would they behave live members of a “petit parti”, to quote Hon S Mohammed, and cling on to their parliamentary seats despite owing their seats in Parliament to the massive support of the Labour Party?
If Hon Seetaram is seen in MSM quarters as being a “traitor”, what about the MSM joining up with the MMM in an alliance against the Labour Party? MSM MPs owe their elections to the rural electorate, mostly Labourites, on the strength of their alliance with the Labour Party. Those electors voted them to sit on government benches with the LP-PMSD combine, not to join forces with the MMM. Can we expect the MSM MPs to resign from Parliament and seek a fresh mandate from the electorate?
That would be too much asking from our local political clowns, and it may be necessary for the population to insist that floor crossing be not allowed by a simple constitutional amendment. If this issue is not decisively addressed, the population will continue to the “dindon de la farce”.
* Published in print edition on 12 August 2011