12th October, 2003 Volume 10, Issue 13

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POLITICS

Inside Politics

AB defies CBK over deal with JVP

Anura - Stirring the pot

CBK - Damage control

By Suranimala

With the SLFP facing the prospect of a serious internal split due to continued agitation by several party seniors for an alliance with the JVP, the government was setting the stage for a major grassroots offensive to capture the moderate ground within the opposition.

Despite President Chandrika Kumaratunga calling off talks with the JVP to forge an alliance due to serious policy differences, a formidable group within the SLFP led by Gampaha District MP, Anura Bandaranaike struck a note of defiance, insisting a pact with the Marxists was the only path towards electoral victory against the UNP.

To the Anura Bandaranaike faction within the SLFP, Kumaratunga was increasingly becoming redundant due to the constitutional limitation imposed upon her from contesting the presidential election for a third term and a major offensive was launched publicly to force the President's hand on the issue of an alliance with the JVP. To Bandaranaike, failure to clinch a deal with the JVP would lead to electoral disaster and decimation of the SLFP and he publicly started espousing that view point much to the chagrin of the President.

Scathing attack

It was just the previous week, Kumaratunga launched a scathing attack on the reds at the PA parliamentary group meeting detailing the list of demands made by the Marxists, warning  members of disciplinary action if there was any more talk of an alliance.

The JVP in addition to seeking four ministerial portfolios and the deputy defence portfolio was also demanding the co-chairmanship of the alliance whilst rejecting the SLFP formula for devolving power to the north east. For the Marxists, the path to prosperity was a socialist economy buttressed with a military solution to the north east crisis and if the SLFP wanted an alliance, it was going to be on the JVP's terms, conditions Bandaranaike saw no problem in complying with.

The JVP knew only too well, the SLFP was desperate to recapture power and the only way to achieve that objective was through an alliance with the Marxists. Accordingly, they used that leverage to exert maximum pressure on the SLFP, knowing it was a no-lose situation for the party.

For, if the JVP succeeded in securing a deal with the SLFP on its terms, a future government of the alliance would not only be a captive of the Marxists but it will undoubtedly help them infiltrate the grassroot base of the blues in addition to the state machinery and marginalise the party in the mid to short term thereby emerging as the principal opponent of the UNP.

On the other hand, even if the alliance talks failed, the JVP would have successfully divided the SLFP as is already evident and directly benefitted when it comes to election time.

And through the process of negotiating an alliance with the SLFP, the JVP has cleverly projected itself as a party with a consistent position as opposed to the SLFP, which was not only divided on policy but also seen to be opportunistic, largely due to comments by the likes of Bandaranaike.

The President, though fast running out of time in office however, was politically savvy enough to realise the JVP game plan and given the impracticality of their demands was left with no option but to call off the talks, resulting in the two parties publicly exchanging barbs.

Having served in government as head of state for over seven years, Kumaratunga unlike her brother was fully conscious of the international as well as domestic ramifications of having to run an economy driven by socialist ideology and wage war at the same time with the LTTE  whilst also completely alienating the minorities and for those obvious reasons she distanced herself from the JVP.

But to the likes of Anura Bandaranaike, the be all and end all of politics was capturing power at any cost and saw an alliance with the JVP as the only way of achieving that goal and started openly defying the President.

Damage control

And given Bandaranaike's track record of causing internal splits in parties, the President though furious with her brother moved quickly to take damage control measures last week by stopping him in his tracks, at least for now.

The JVP for its part too knew only too well, Bandaranaike was the best instrument to further its political agenda and egged him on with word and deed and rising to the bait, Bandaranaike started publicly challenging the President's views on an alliance with the JVP, warning SLFPers the party will be doomed if a deal was not stuck.

Bandaranaike told public meetings in Attanagalle and Kandy that the President has only two more years in office and the party would thereafter have to find a suitable candidate for the presidential election, thereby indicating to the party cadres Kumaratunga was on the way out.

Bandaranaike went on to say, if an alliance is not formed before the Wayamba provincial polls in January, the UNP will be victorious, leading to all elections that follow producing the same result, which he said would be the death knell of the party and the President.

Having said that, Bandaranaike added the formula for success was to forge an alliance, sack the Prime Minister, go for a general election, win it and then nominate a candidate for the presidential election - which he hopes will be him.

The Gampaha District MP also took up the position that there was no other alternative since the presidential system is here to stay due to the lack of a two third majority to abolish it, thereby taking Kumaratunga out of the political equation.

That however was not the agenda Kumaratunga had in mind, but the first line of defence to prevent an imminent split in the party over this issue given Bandaranaike's public defiance of the President was to neutralise him and this she sought to do by calling for a meeting of the SLFP's policy making body, the central committee.

For Kumaratunga the road to defeating the UNP and forming a stable government while still holding the peace was not to cave into the JVP but lure a sizeable group from the UNP and the minorities, both of which the President knew will be lost if an alliance was forged with the JVP on the terms demanded.

But rather than allowing Bandaranaike to split the party by confronting him for defying her authority, the President opted to forge ahead with her agenda whilst pandering to Bandaranaike by agreeing for a resumption of talks with the JVP.

Thus, when the central committee met on Monday, October 6, whilst agreeing to resume talks with the JVP, to avert a split in the party, Kumaratunga very cleverly checkmated the Marxists on the issue of a settlement to the ethnic issue by calling for representations from each member. Bandaranaike was not present at the meeting.

What the President did at the meeting was ask each member to individually spell out their respective positions on devolving power to the northeast based on her 2000 draft constitution and the unanimous view was that power should be devolved in terms of Kumaratunga's draft.

Alliance with the JVP

With that move Kumaratunga ensured any talks with the JVP will have to be on the basis of the Marxists accepting her position on devolution, a position the likes of Wimal Weerawansa already rejected.

But as far as Kumaratunga was concerned, any alliance with the JVP will have to be on the basis of agreement on Kumaratunga's 2000 draft constitution, a move which has now effectively checkmated Bandaranaike from providing the JVP a blank cheque to strike a deal.

Furthermore, Kumaratunga dealt Bandaranaike another devastating blow by informing the central committee it will only be General Secretary, SLFP, Maithripala Sirisena and Assistant Secretary, Susil Premajayanth who will in future be authorised to speak on talks with the JVP, thereby effectively shutting up Bandaranaike.

It is also significant that both Sirisena and Premajayanth who was formerly a chief minister of the Western Province are firmly committed to the devolution of power to the north east.

However, it is not in Bandaranaike's nature to be sidelined and in the weeks to come he will increasingly become strident, charting his own agenda in a bid to get the party's presidential candidate nomination. But Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapakse, also a strong contender for the nomination, has already made his intentions clear of seeking it for himself in the event of an election, thus setting the stage for an all out battle and internal dissension.

Interestingly Rajapakse, given his antagonistic stance towards the JVP, has endeared himself to the President since of late, making life that much more difficult for Bandaranaike.

In fact, after Bandaranaike's statements on the party's need to select a candidate for the presidential election came to be reported in the media, Rajapakse made his own counter attack, stating the party stood for the abolition of the executive presidency and making Kumaratunga the executive prime minister and as such the question of nominating a candidate at this point did not arise.

Threats

Be that as it may, Bandaranaike continued to toe the JVP line even on foreign policy, threatening to move a vote of no confidence against Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe for his address to the United Nations General Assembly, but once again hitting a red light with the party hierarchy.

Having threatened to move the no confidence motion through the media, Bandaranaike made his proposal at the PA parliamentary group meeting presided by Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapakse on Thursday, October 7.

Bandaranaike found ready support for his proposal from Badulla District MP, Nimal Siripala de Silva and Batticaloa District MP, M.L.A.M. Hizbullah after which the three Muslim MPs from the east, Hizbullah, Ferial Ashraff and Segu Issadeen were entrusted the task of drafting the motion.

However, Matara District MP, Mangala Samaraweera and other members loyal to Kumaratunga had other ideas and informed the President of Bandaranaike's proposal and vetoed it.

The President and her allies of course are working on a different strategy to oust the Premier to which Bandaranaike is not privy and decided it would be foolish at this point to move a no confidence motion since a decisive victory for Wickremesinghe given the Tamil National Alliance support would derail Kumaratunga's plans for his ouster.

Thus, rather than move a vote of no confidence, it was decided to ask for an adjournment debate.

This issue in fact came to be discussed at the party leader's meeting in parliament on Wednesday, October 8, where the government needled the opposition for backtracking on the threat. Among those present at the meeting presided by Speaker Joseph Michael Perera were Ministers Karu Jayasuriya, W.J.M. Lokubandara, Tyronne Fernando, Mahinda Samarasinghe, Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapakse, Mangala Samaraweera, Anura Bandaranaike and Wimal Weerawansa.

It was Weerawansa who broached the issue, proposing a one day adjournment debate on the Premier's UN address, to which the government readily agreed.

Chief Government Whip, Mahinda Samarasinghe rising to the challenge said the government was willing to give the first available date for the debate but that they were disappointed a vote of no confidence was not presented as threatened.

No confidence motion

"We wanted to give an immediate date for the no confidence motion but no one has given notice of one. Instead you have presented a motion for an adjournment debate. We will give you Thursday, October 23, which is the week parliament next meets. We could have given you Tuesday or Wednesday but the Prime Minister is in India on those two days," he said.

Responded Samaraweera "I hope the Prime Minister will be there to reply." Shot back Samarasinghe - "Of course he is going to reply. That is not an issue."

Of course, the government is alive to the President's strategy of attempting to woo a group of UNPers with the Foreign Minister no less informing Party Chairman, Malik Samarawic-krema he had been also approached.

But Samarawickrema allayed Fernando's fears stating 12 PA MPs were in dialogue with the government and would crossover at a moment's notice if a single MP from the UNP joined the PA ranks.

"We are holding them to strike at the most opportune time," Samarawickrema told Fernando.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe too is preparing to meet the challenges ahead and last week directed his ministers as well as members of parliament not to leave the country for the next two months, other than on very special circumstances especially with the budget debate to continue from November 12 to December 18.

Prior to issuing this directive at the cabinet and the parliamentary group meetings on Wednesday, the Prime Minister met with his political affairs committee on Monday, October 6, where the political strategy for the weeks ahead was discussed. Among those present were Ministers Karu Jayasuriya, S.B. Dissanayake, Bandula Gunawardena, Tilak Marapone, Mahinda Samarasinghe, Rajitha Senaratne, K.N. Choksy, M.H. Mohomed, Tissa Attanayake, J. Podinilame, P. Jayaratne, Ananda Kularatne and UNP Chairman Malik Samarawickrema.

At the very outset, the Prime Minister told the members, though the government has done a considerable amount of work during the last two years, the message has not filtered to the grassroots, a situation he said that has to be urgently addressed.

"The problem is that while ministers attend functions and speak about their ministries, nothing is said about the development activities of the government as a whole. The ministers must speak in one voice. We must capture the moderate voter who is panicking because of the SLFP and JVP to us," he said.

Taking the message to the people

Following the Premier's opening remarks, the members present made their observations after which the Premier said he was looking at a scheme where the ministers get personally involved in taking the message to the people.

Thereafter, he appointed a five member committee to coordinate and map out a strategy comprising Mahinda Samarasinghe who as Chief Whip was to coordinate strategy with MPs Imthiaz Bakeer Markar to coordinate the media and S.B. Dissanayake to coordinate the speakers in English, Sinhala and Tamil. The other two members appointed were Malik Samarawickrema and Irwin Weerackody.

This message of taking the message to the people was also articulated by Wickremesinghe when he addressed the UNP parliamentary group on Wednesday stating he has nominated the backbenchers to review development activity of the government.

"Each MP will be given an office, planning secretary and a clerk from the government service. They will have to review Rs. 17 billion worth of development activity in the respective districts and report to the development ministers and district coordinating committees. This programme will be coordinated by Mahinda Samara-singhe with the MPs. The development ministers will handle the supervision and advise the members," the Premier said.

Thus, while the opposition is facing a battle for survival given the internal divisions over an alliance with the JVP, the government was planning to move in for the kill with a package of economic goodies also to be offered in the forthcoming budget.

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