14th December, 2003 Volume 10, Issue 22

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POLITICS

Inside Politics

The Titanic sails on

By Suranimala

President Chandrika Kumaratunga

Ranil Wickremesinghe    Malik Samarawickrema     Mano Tittawela

It is now six weeks since Chandrika Kumaratunga fired her fateful salvo at Ranil Wickremesinghe’s ship of state on November 4, holing it amidships. Since then, listing slightly to starboard and firing on only two cylinders, the S.S. UNF has hobbled on, lifeboats at the ready, hoping desperately that the engineers could do their work, enabling the voyage to see completion

Tinker as best they can, there seems little the contracted engineers, Weerakoon, Samarawickrema & Co., can do to prevent the vessel from succumbing to Kumaratunga’s mortal blow, and sinking slowly into the oblivion of the sludge and slime on the ocean floor.

Even though it was Chandrika Kumaratunga who shot herself in the foot, the outlook for the UNF is grim. The only threat the Greens hold over the President is refusing to pass the votes on the ministries held by her, barring defence, of course. Ranil Wickremesinghe is most unlikely to acquiesce to so extreme an act of defiance, which would almost certainly precipitate a general election.

No dissolving parliament

On the other hand, during the past week, Kumaratunga has been repeatedly saying she will not dissolve parliament, music to the ears of election-weary and cash-strapped MPs, who are in no hurry to go to the hustings.

Besides, even if he were to precipitate a dissolution, the UNF could at best hope to increase its presently comfortable majority by a handful of additional seats. Kumaratunga stands to lose more, but the panic might well be the straw that drives her into the JVP’s arms, throwing a large wildcard into the equation.

And by Thursday night with the imminent collapse of the Mano-Malik talks, the President was sounding out her MPs on the possibility of a snap election.

Ranil Wickremesinghe’s hope is to play for time. He has now hobbled along quite nicely for two years, with peace and a modicum of prosperity to show for it, and would be quite happy to be allowed to do so for another two, regardless of what jibes Kumaratunga throws at him, or what barbs she chooses to circumscribe his freedom with. If the Prime Minister wants to usher in a new age for Sri Lanka, everyone knows that he will have to do this by winning the presidency when Kumaratunga quits end 2005 — if there still is a presidency by then.

The Premier’s game plan is probably to limp along as best he can, until he can win real power and a six-year term of stability. There is no way that is going to happen before the next presidential election, and so he probably feels there is no point precipitating an election now: even if he were to win handsomely, Kumaratunga would still be President, and could do it all over again.

The downside of this is that the UNF’s storm troopers are becoming increasingly a disillusioned lot. They see their leadership bullied, insulted and demeaned, and do not like it a bit.

Conduct

For its part, the leadership, while conducting itself with decorum that would have made Lady Dorothy Troubridge (the renowned Victorian authoress of Modern Etiquette) go weak at the knees with admiration, has a performance the public perceives as spineless and pusillanimous. Hardly the call to arms a party wants in the run up to electoral battle.

The state of the UNF’s confusion was worse confounded by the vague message its leadership gave at the party convention. Clearly, the Greens have lost their game plan, and with it the initiative that the private sector likes to see before mortgaging their family heirlooms and plugging the money into the stock market. The message then, is another year in the doldrums.

A change could only come if the provincial council elections, billed for early next year, result in an outstanding victory for one side or the other unless of course a general election precedes. But that again is heavily weighted against the UNF given that Kumaratunga holds the three ministries most crucial to election abuse, and that she is not above winning elections, on her own admission, “by hook or by crook.”

As if these problems were not enough for Wickremesinghe, he has been besieged also on other fronts. The previous week he was forced to call for Bank of Ceylon Chairperson Sumi Moonesinghe’s resignation after massive financial irregularities were discovered. While Moonesinghe was allowed a graceful exit, the self-promoting publicity campaign orchestrated by her after the event provoked a government spokesman to make it clear that she would not be offered another post in the state sector.

As if that were not enough, the case against Thilanga Sumathipala, which has been simmering since September, came to a head last Monday with the fiasco in the Acting Magistrate’s Court. As is clear from stories on other pages of this issue, and apart from anything else, the Magistrate should not have heard the case because of the conflict of interest. After all, the suspect is a leading bookie, and the Magistrate an inveterate gambler!

Silence on Sumathipala issue

Notwithstanding that, given the information that has since emerged with regard to Sumathipala, the government’s silence has been deafening. Here is a man who is caught red handed, leaving not an iota of doubt, that he not only defrauded Sri Lanka Cricket for a substantial amount of money, but then by authorising it to be written off, sought to cover his tracks.

Sports Minister Johnston Fernando takes the view that if Sumathipala is eventually found guilty, he’ll call for his resignation. If that is Fernando’s standard of morality, let us say here that he is unfit to hold the high office of a minister of this government.

The President would do well to sack him, and right quickly. He was appointed to do a job, and to uphold the standards of Sri Lanka and the sport of cricket, for which our nation is world famous. If Fernando is going to defend a villain who has exploited the game for his own, illegal advantage, it is time Fernando took a walk.

Likewise, Telecommunications Minister Imtiaz Bakeer Markar, who Sumathipala serves. He has taken the bizarre view that Sumathipala was appointed by the Prime Minister, so his continuing to serve as Chairman of SLT has nothing to do with the Ministry. Well, Markar, what then are you a minister for? If the Prime Minister is supposed to do your job, their is no point paying you good money from the taxpayers and giving you official limousines just to sit in a grand office and pass the buck. Here then is a case if any for a Presidential takeover of the two ministries.

There is a widespread public perception that both these Ministers are leaving no stone unturned to defend and protect Sumathipala, and one can but hope that it is not for the same reasons that Magistrate Ananda Gamlatharachchi, now under interdiction, did so. It is ironic that both these Ministers signed the impeachment motion against the Chief Justice. However, within 24 hours of Gamlatharachchi’s misdemeanour, Chief Justice Sarath Silva had the errant judge on the mat, sending a clear signal to the entire judiciary that no such nonsense would be tolerated.

Different code of morality

On the other hand, Ministers Fernando and Markar seem to have a different code of morality altogether. They’d be quite happy to bring institutions under their ministries into complete disrepute just on the basis that the villain in question is well heeled.

Well, Fernando and Markar, kindly note that we hereby put you on notice. You have betrayed the public trust, and your conduct is precisely that which brought the PA into so much disrepute. With an election possibly months away, every politician in this country would do well to minimise the skeletons in their cupboards, for be assured, these will be aired widely and loudly come judgement day. And the people of Sri Lanka are not nearly as forgiving as you think they are, or the PA would still be in power.

The captain of the ship, Ranil Wickremesinghe, should come to grips with the fact that his vessel has been holed. Ignoring the fact would be a disaster. UNF Titanic may well be afloat and under way — but so was the S.S. Titanic for a full four hours after the iceberg struck.

So, even as the government vacillates and ministers fall over one another to lick Sumathipala’s posterior, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. And that is that, when President Kumaratunga was told by Acting IGP Indra Silva of the imminent arrest of the Telecom boss, her reaction was typical and succinct: “Jayawewa!” she said, slapping her desk. That’s more like it, Madam: that is much more like it.

A political merry go round 

By Thursday, December 11, it was patently obvious to both President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, a compromise between the two to overcome the political gridlock had as much chance of success as a snowball’s chance in hell.

The Malik-Mano committee having laboured for days was no nearer a compromise by week’s end than they were at the commencement of the talks.

Both the President and the Prime Minister through their respective nominees exchanged several proposals, each to be rejected by the other.

The President was insistent the defence portfolio with full charge of the three services should vest in her while the Prime Minister was equally insistent he cannot take responsibility for the peace process unless he controlled the essential levers, them being defence, interior and media.

In this backdrop the President proposed the setting up of a National Security Ministry which would be gazetted control over the security forces in the north east while the President continued to hold on to overall control of defence including the intelligence services.

This to the Prime Minister was unworkable in practical terms and offered a compromise formula where the President was to remain as Defence Minister with all decisions taken by a national security council chaired by the President.

However, the Prime Minister’s proposal went on to state, the three services and the intelligence services should be listed under the Prime Minister.

Wickremesinghe’s logic was simple. It was impossible for him to be in charge of only the security forces in the north east without control over the three services since there would be a problem over the command structure.

For example, if the Prime Minister as National Security Minister gives a directive to the commanding officer of the army in the north, is he bound to carry it out if a contrary directive is given by the President as Defence Minister?

At the same time, will such an area commander not be responsible to the Army Commander who would be answerable to the President?

These impracticalities were what UNP Chairman Malik Samarawickrema impressed upon Presidential Advisor Mano Tittawela on Thursday night when the committee met, where it was clear, the talks were heading for collapse.

In fact, the previous day, when the President met with the Prime Minister too, after three hours of discussion, there was no breakthrough on who should handle the peace process given the dispute over the defence portfolio.

Thus on Thursday, Samarawickrema indicated to Tittawela there was no point in labouring over the issue since the President has refused to compromise on listing the three services under the Premier and as such the talks should be concluded Friday to enable the respective parties to deal with the situation politically.

Samarawickrema said the government wanted the talks to end by Friday before the party convention on Saturday so that the UNP can decide on a course of political action.

Tittawela that very evening informed the President the talks will wind up Friday without a breakthrough and at a dinner hosted the very night for MPs, Kumaratunga told NUA Leader Ferial Ashraff, they should ready for an election since the talks were heading nowhere.

The following day, Friday, the President also briefed all SLFP organsiers and asked them to be ready for elections.

The President however well realises, an election will not help the PA to return to power even with the JVP due to the minority factor but is conscious of the fact, a hung parliament will lead to sufficient pressure from the people for the two parties, the UNP and SLFP to unite and form a national government in which she as President can continue to call the shots.

The President is particularly alive to the reality, a government formed with the JVP will not only make it impossible for her to negotiate with the LTTE but also to get international financial support or for that matter investment.

However, with a view to getting the numbers to force the UNP’s hand, the President has now decided to link with the JVP, but strike a deal with the UNP for a national government after an election if the Greens don’t get a clear majority. The President believes there will be public pressure on the UNP to form a government with the PA rather than the TNA which will be fronted by the LTTE.

The LTTE on the other hand is alive to the political manoeuvering as well and has called on all Tamil parties in the north east as well as the hill country to contest under a common symbol thereby ensuring at least 30 seats at the next election and make it the principal opposition.

The LTTE strategy is to field a common list not only in the north and east but also the Nuwara Eliya, Kandy, Badulla, Ratnapura, Colombo and Kalutara Districts with political parties that have Tamils not only of Sri Lankan descent but Indian origin as a base.

The possibilities a general election can throw up in such a climate are endless and with the failure of the Malik-Mano talks and the precipitous actions taken by the President on November 4, that is what the country can look forward to come 2004.


SLFP wants a parliament of 266 MPs 

The SLFP has proposed a parliament of 266 members to the parliamentary committee on electoral reform. The SLFP proposal submitted by former Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickramanayaka envisages the election of 161 MPs under the first past the post system and 25 on a national basis. Following is the full proposal submitted to the parliamentary select committee chaired by Dinesh Gunawardena on Thursday. 

Electoral reforms proposed by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party

The present prevailing proportional system of elections with regard to parliament, provincial councils and pradeshiya sabha elections is totally unsuitable for this country. Not only has it resulted in many adverse features but also has resulted in negation of democratic electoral process and brought about a state of uncertainty and destabilisation of the political situation in the country.

Hence the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) proposes that we should return to the first past the post system that was first enunciated by the Parliamentary Election Order in Council of 1946 which prevailed prior to the implementation of the 1978 constitution.

I.          The 161 electoral districts which have been in existence up to the time of the implementation of the 1978 constitution shall be the basis of election of members to parliament until such time that a delimitation commission would re-demarcate the electoral districts.

II.          The number of members to be elected on the basis of said electoral districts shall be 161, and the election of them would be on the first past the post system.

III. In addition to the number of members, elected in accordance with (II) above eighty (80) members, that is 50% of the number of the members elected as paragraph I and II above, shall be elected on the proportional system making the total number of members elected 241.

IV.        The apportionment of the number of members that each administrative district is entitled to return, out of the 80 members referred to above shall as far as practicable be determined by the Elections Commissioner or the Election Commission as the case may be in proportion to the number of electors of the administrative district.

V.         However that each such administrative district shall be entitled to return at least one (1) member. The election of the said 80 members on administrative districts shall be done according to the procedure laid down in the section amending Article 98 of the Constitution as was incorporated in the proposed 17th Amendment to the Constitution.

National list

In order to ensure stability of the government formed by the political party or group of parties which achieves the largest number of members in the elections and also to facilitate the major political parties to accommodate intellectuals, academics, technocrats, minorities unrepresented otherwise, and distinguished personalities, it is hereby proposed that further twenty five (25) members be nominated on national basis. Fifteen (15) of such twenty five (25) members be allocated to the party which is invited to form the government by virtue of the fact that the party has got the largest number of members in parliament and the balance ten (10) to be apportioned to the other political parties in proportion to the number of votes polled at national level.

Thus the total number of members of parliament shall be two hundred and sixty six (266).

This system of election which is a combination of first past the post system and the proportional system will help to minimise the violence, corruption, negation of democratic values which have plagued the party politics of the day and also it would provide the opportunity for the minorities to elect their members to the parliament .

Above all, these proposals would provide stability of the government formed by whatever party or parties.

Provincial councils and pradeshiya sabhas

Similar systems based on geographical demarcation of electoral units should be formulated for the provincial councils and pradeshiya sabha elections as well.

MP Ratnasiri Wickramanayaka
MP Ronnie De Mel
MP Sarath Amunugama
MP John Seneviratne

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