Playing the political
While the President was toying with the
idea of a snap election in May, the UNF government went into overdrive
last week, mapping out strategy to meet a situation where parliament is
dissolved without notice.
Despite a written assurance by President
Kumaratunga to parliament she will not dissolve it prematurely, there is
now a change of heart, with the PA publicly stating the President no
longer considers herself bound to honour that written commitment.
General Secretary, PA, D.M. Jayaratne's
logic in this regard is simple. The UNF did not believe the President's
written undertaking and as such, she is not obliged to honour it. The
President herself has taken the position, the decision by the government
to introduce the 19th Amendment to the Constitution subsequent to her
written assurance has invalidated the written pledge.
These justifications apart, there are
compelling personal political factors that are determining the decision
to go for a snap election and the government too has been briefed of the
thinking at President's House by insiders.
While a majority of PA members themselves
are unhappy to face a snap election at this point of time, the
motivators for such a gamble are the JVP and Kumaratunga loyalists,
Mangala Samaraweera, Sarath Amunugama and Nimal Siripala de Silva.
From the President's point of view, she
has only till 2005 to hold on to the office of president and any chance
of having the system abolished has to be done before she becomes a lame
duck and it is no secret, with each passing day her position is
An abolition in the absence of a two third
majority in parliament can only be achieved through the legally
questionable tactic of seeking a people's mandate to draft a new
constitution providing for the abolition of the executive presidency
through the mechanism of a constituent assembly and that would mean a
With the President having failed to get
the UNP's support for her draft constitution in August 2000, she did
attempt this strategy at the 2001 general election, where a mandate was
sought for the very purpose but failed to secure a simple majority to
proceed with this move.
The President is only too aware that
sooner rather than later, the PA will have to project its candidate for
the 2005 presidential election with the likes of Mahinda Rajapakse and
Anura Bandaranaike already bracing themselves to run and if she is to
remain the prima donna of the PA, her authority will have to be asserted
before the internal agitation to name a candidate raises its head.
For, in such a situation, it is around
such a candidate the party machinery will revolve and even if
Kumaratunga decides to return to parliament as prime minister or leader
of the opposition, she will have to play second fiddle to a possible PA
president. With that will also go her leadership of both the SLFP and
At the same time, the President cannot
wait long because with each passing day, the UNF government gets
stabilised with the overall economic conditions improving and it is
these factors that have got President's House working overtime for a
However, given the ground situation today,
the President and her loyalists believe, even if a general election is
called and an alliance is clinched with the JVP, the possibility of
getting a majority under the prevailing proportional representation
system is extremely remote, especially with the minorities being
completely alienated, moreso due to the alliance with the JVP.
Furthermore, if the JVP is to go into
alliance with the SLFP, the Marxists are asking for at least 35 seats in
parliament, possibly hoping to settle for around 25 in a final
Creating public perception
In that overall context, the thinking at
President's House is to create a public perception there is a huge swing
against the UNF nationally and capitalise on it at a general election to
get the required 113 seats in parliament and put in motion the
constitutional strategy in the hope a 'friendly' Supreme Court will
And to create this public perception of
wide-scale discontentment against the UNF government, the thinking in
the President's camp is to first test the waters in a province which is
a traditional stronghold of the PA with a strong support base for the
JVP as well, the province being the south.
Accordingly, the idea is to first go for a
snap provincial council election in alliance with the JVP in the south
where the PA is currently in government and win it comfortably, thereby
projecting the public perception the UNF is hugely unpopular.
And if that objective is achieved, to
follow up with the dissolution of parliament and go for the UNF's
There is, of course, the added concern of
facing an election with the UNF in government and the possibility of
sacking Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and running with a minority
government in the event of success in the south is also a matter given
Questions such as the fate of the peace
process and how a new PA-JVP government will handle a possible war
situation, rebuild the economy in the face of possible international
isolation and the like were not up for consideration in the overall
scheme of things, with recapturing power being the singular
All these factors were not lost on Prime
Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who on Monday, January 27, convened a
meeting of his political affairs committee to work out a counter
strategy. Among those present at the Temple Trees meeting were Ministers
Karu Jayasuriya, Tilak Marapone, Rauf Hakeem, S.B. Dissanayake, UNP
Chairman Malik Samarawickrema and General Secretary Senarath Kapukotuwa.
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe himself had
come prepared for the meeting with a strategy paper setting out possible
scenarios and options, together with suggestions for easing the economic
burdens on the people and placed them before the committee.
Wickremesinghe explained to the committee
the information in his possession of the PA strategy and the pressure
put by the JVP for the dissolution of parliament and said the government
must be ready to face an election at any given time.
Thereafter, Minister S.B. Dissanayake
explained the current thinking of the President to first test the waters
with an election in the Southern Province and go for a general election
under a PA-JVP caretaker government.
"I personally do not think she will
be able to go through with her plan because pressure will come from
within the SLFP not to form an alliance with the JVP, in addition to not
go for an election. Anura Bandaranaike himself has said it is not
advantageous for the PA to go for an election at this time," he
Continuing, Minister Dissanayake said many
moderates within the PA are opposed to an election since they fear the
outbreak of war and the blame falling on the party.
"The President herself will feel
eventually she cannot campaign due to a security risk in such a
situation. But let us assume there will be an election and prepare for
it. Whatever the sceptics say, we can increase our majority by a minimum
of 10 seats. All we have to do is provide some economic relief to the
people," Dissanayake added.
However, Dissanayake said the President is
also under pressure by the JVP to form a minority government before
dissolution so that the election can be held with the state machinery in
the hands of the PA-JVP alliance.
"That is what we have to look out
for. If that happens, it will be clear they want to push the country
into a dictatorship and we will have to take drastic action. We will
then bring the people to the city and walk into our ministries and
convene parliament and continue to sit. We must not allow them to travel
that path and accept it meekly," Dissanayake further said.
Making his own contribution at this
meeting, Minister Jayasuriya said in such a situation it was of
paramount importance to have an independent judiciary and the government
was duty bound to honour its pledge to the people and impeach the Chief
Justice as a matter of priority.
Moving against Wickremasuriya
Agreeing with Jayasuriya, Minister
Dissanayake said the government is also now set to move against the
Permanent Commission Investigating Allegations of Bribery or Corruption
since it is used as a political tool by the President as exposed in
"The motion calling for a select
committee on Commissioner Kingsley Wickremasuriya is now ready and I
will collect signatures this week and present it to parliament," he
At this point, the Prime Minister said the
government will initially move against Wickremasuriya and look at the
issue of the Chief Justice subsequently.
At the same time, the committee decided to
launch a campaign headed by the Prime Minister from the first week of
February with a meeting in Anuradhapura on February 2, followed by a
brainstorming meeting of ministers at Temple Trees on February 6, where
a package of economic relief and overall strategy are to be discussed.
The Prime Minister also told the members
the plans he had in the immediate future to relieve the people of their
economic burdens in the overall context of improved economic growth.
In furtherance of the government's overall
strategy, the cost of living committee also met the same day and worked
out a series of proposals to reduce the rising prices. Among those
present were Ministers Karu Jayasuriya, Bandula Gunawardena, Ravi
Karunanayake, S.B. Dissanayake, Treasury Secretary Charitha Ratwatte and
Advisor to the Prime Minister, K.H.J. Wijedasa.
Cost of living issues
At this meeting, initially the committee
looked at bringing down the price of flour and Wijedasa pointed out the
wheat imports were done under an agreement signed during the PA tenure
on terms detrimental to Sri Lanka.
He said it was the Kansas Commodity
Exchange Rate which was used though wheat imports from the U.S.A. was
only 27%. The committee thereafter decided the government should
renegotiate the terms with Prima for the benefit of the consumers.
It was, however, pointed out very clearly
by Finance Secretary Charitha Ratwatte that the government will not
provide subsidies and plunge the country into a deep economic crisis.
Thereafter, the question of rice was taken
up and it was decided not to do anything on this issue since a bumper
harvest was expected in March.
Minister Dissanayake said an unprecedented
harvest is expected and there was no cause to worry on that score.
Likewise, it was decided that given the overall economic situation, the
petroleum prices will not be jacked up, while the withdrawal of VAT on
gas was proposed to bring down the price.
The committee decided that the withdrawal
of VAT on gas would be done to benefit the consumer and not the
The price reduction will have to be passed
on to the consumer Karunanayake said. The committee also decided that
the government must resist strenuously in court the action filed by
Shell against the Fair Trading Commission (FTC), whilst also asking the
FTC to look into the activities of Laugfs gas.
A further discussion on the overall
strategy to bring down the cost of living is now planned for this week
with the Prime Minister.
And when the UNP parliamentary group met
on Thursday, these issues, including the action against the Bribery
Commission, topped the agenda.
What the government was doing by taking on
the Bribery Commission was send a signal to the President, it will no
longer stand and watch while the administration is destabilised.
Thus, when the group met, Minister S.B.
Dissanayake moved for a select committee on Kingsley Wickremasuriya,
giving details on the President's interference with the workings of the
commission using the Commissioner as a tool.
On the offensive
Supporting Dissanayake was Minister
Karunanayake, who too said it was time the government went on the
offensive, thinking which was backed by Puttlam District MP, Ranga
Equally vociferous on the workings of the
commission was Minister Rajitha Senaratne who said Wickremasuriya had in
writing asked the investigators for all complaints received against
politicians after the UNF was elected to office, while Minister G.L.
Peiris explained the thinking behind the introduction of the independent
commission and how the objectives were now subverted by the
"This is like the judge going to the
complainant's home to write the judgement against the accused," he
said, referring to Minister Dissanayake's case.
Interestingly, Justice Minister W.J.M.
Lokubandara said since the President was also involved in subverting
justice, action should be taken against her as well. Up went
Karunanayake - "I will start collecting the signatures."
A smiling Prime Minister responding said
the government should first concentrate on the Bribery Commission and
then look at other options.
And by Friday, Minister Dissanayake
started collecting the signatures for the select committee, sending a
clear signal the government is now officially on the war path with
Compensation for former colleagues
The people may be wilting under rising
prices with the politicians calling upon them to grin and bear in
the name of economic prudence but all those lofty ideals go by the
board when it comes to setting a precedent to feather their own
If politicians can claim they are in the
service of the public, then moreso can a soldier fighting to
safeguard the sovereignty and unity of the country so do.
But with all things not being equal and
the spoon in the hands of those who govern, they have now decided
to set a precedent to help themselves generously. Then there are
no financial difficulties confronting the Treasury.
Last week, President Chandrika Kumaratunga
forwarded a note to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe seeking
compensation for the family of former Minister M.H.M. Ashraff, the
leader of the Muslim Congress who perished when his chopper
crashed while campaigning for the 2000 general election.
The President during the PA tenure had
earlier granted compensation to the son and daughter of former
Minister C.V. Gooneratne, who together with his wife died in a
suicide bomb attack by the LTTE.
On this occasion, the President had sought
Rs. 5 million for Ashraff's son, Rs. 2 million for his widow
Ferial Ashraff, who is a PA MP, and Rs. 1 million for Ashraff's
deceased mother, which money of course would go to another family
Thus, at the pre cabinet meeting on
Wednesday, January 29, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe brought to
the notice of his ministers the President's proposal and called
for a decision.
The first to speak out on the issue was
Commerce Minister Ravi Karunanayake.
Said he: "The problem is the people
will feel we are looking after ourselves. There are security
forces personnel who have been killed in the line of duty and
journalists and none of them have received this type of
compensation. Take the cases of Lalith Athulathmudali, Gamini
Dissanayake, President Premadasa and Tamil MPs who were killed.
Their family members never got compensation. This will set a bad
Following suit was Minister Rauf Hakeem
who said what the SLMC called for was an investigation into the
crash to get at the facts and not for compensation.
"Three journalists were also killed
and some air force personnel. What are we giving them?"
Defence Minister Tilak Marapone too was
not too happy, stating such a payment would mean the air force was
negligent when there is no basis for such an assumption.
Likewise, Minister G.L. Peiris said it
would amount to an ex gratia payment while Justice Minister W.J.M.
Lokubandara suggested the monies be paid out of the President's
Said Rajitha Senaratne, "No, we will
treat it as a payment from cabinet."
Finally, it was decided to make the
payment to the son and widow but not the mother since she is
already deceased, a compromise the President happily agreed with.
And not to miss a beat, Minister
Karunanayake said he would be forwarding a similar paper to
cabinet seeking compensation for the widow and daughter of Lalith
Athulathmudali and no doubt similar demands would be made on
behalf of other politicians who were killed due to terrorism or by
The Prime Minister himself acknowledged
this decision will open the floodgates but for once, the President
and the UNF government were in agreement on an issue. Compensation
for their former colleagues. (See editorial)
debate a damp squib
best way to describe the last two days of debating last week would be:
debate was on the statement made by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe
soon after the Oslo donor conference and was billed to be full of fiery
exchanges, but it hardly created a spark.
covering the debate were sleeping in the media room with the Order
Book as a pillow. Members inside the chamber were making an effort
to keep their eyes open. Economic Reforms Minister and peace negotiator
Milinda Moragoda, admitted to visiting Executive Director, UNICEF, Carol
Bellamy that he was finding the debate lethargic.
opposition had wanted the debate taken up much earlier than the last
week of January. Opposition party leaders had demanded that the debate
be taken during the first week, but the government manoeuvred to get
what it wanted.
postponing the debate to a date when other political developments would
be taking precedence, the government not only took out any venom in the
bite, but smashed the fangs as well.
both sides of the aisle, attention was on what was happening outside the
chamber. The opposition was holding closed door meetings to hammer out
an alliance that could defeat the UNF at an election if the need arises.
Opposition members would be more than happy to topple the government and
form a new one through the age old art of crossovers.
government at last had woken up to the economic realities and was paying
more attention to stopping the rut before it overwhelms its popularity.
in all, the debate was a damp squib.
only significance if any, was when Prime Minister Wickremesinghe spoke
on Friday and what took place thereafter. He said that the peace process
had reached a critical stage and co-operation among all parties would be
important to achieve success.
told parliament that the President as well as the house would be kept
informed of the progress. According to the Prime Minister, important
issues would come up for discussion at the next round of talks
then concluded his speech, informing members that Prof. G. L. Peiris
would answer remaining questions.
opposition did not buy that and amidst the din, JVP’s Weerawansa
raised a point of order arguing that with Wickremesinghe’s speech the
debate should conclude. However, the chair did not agree and allowed
Prof. Peiris to continue.
and JVP members thereafter staged a walk-out during the reply while
other political parties remained in the chamber.
the opposition, the opening speaker was none other than Opposition
Leader Mahinda Rajapakse. In his opening salvo, Rajapakse set the tone
for what was to follow. He attacked the process, but did not come up
with any viable solution the opposition had in mind.
said that the expectations of the people were not met and that the
government despite the bravado had not achieved anything tangible.
should be a far wider analysis of the reasons behind the war,” he
said, adding that the LTTE was continuing to arm itself, strengthening
its units with child recruits and there was no sign that it was not
building up the suicide units.
government should at least make the request that the suicide squad be
disbanded,” he concluded.
Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake followed suit observing that
what ever solution should guarantee equal rights to all citizens.
Wickremanayake appeared peeved that in some quarters of the government,
the armed forces were being belittled. “I advice them the science of
silence,” the former premier said warning that the concerns of the
armed forces should be taken seriously by the government which should
also desist bending backwards at every whim and fancy of the LTTE.
opposition seniors said that the way things were going, they harboured
serious reservations about the peace process.
S. B. Dissanayake, the first speaker from the government benches delved
into the history of peace making saying that everyone had been left a
loser in the war and that the entire country was now longing for peace.
said that the Premier had adopted a cautious approach to the peace
process and was taking one step at a time. He described the progress of
the first year of the ceasefire as the first step where parties had
agreed not to massacre each other.
those who keep demanding that core issues be discussed as soon as
possible, Dissanayake pointing to history said that complex issues
needed to be tackled slowly and should not be approached head-on.
concluded his speech saying that India was being consulted every step of
the way and that the government was moving with India’s blessings
during what he termed a “decisive moment in history.”
Weerawansa had an entirely different take on the peace process. He said
that from the beginning, it was the LTTE that was gaining and by the MoU,
the government took the first step in alleviating the LTTE’s
offence that the government and the LTTE were given equal treatment,
Weerawansa said the Oslo meeting was another step up the ladder for the
the end of his speech, Weerawansa had transformed himself into the
pulpit speaker that he is, taking on the persona of a saviour of the
nation. He was whacking right around accusing others of being “Anglo
Saxon Animals” and urging anyone within earshot to join his band of
crusaders to save the nation.
once again, the speech lacked any substance, unless, the audience was
red-blooded JVP die-hards. The JVP has still not come out clearly with
its own proposal to solve the ethnic issue, always keeping to vague
Bandaranaike who has hit it off with Weerawansa was quite in tune when
he warned the house on Friday that the President would take serious note
of future violations of the ceasefire agreement.
Rauf Hakeem certainly is not a Marxist, not by a long shot. But he
certainly is a politician. While commending the peace process, he kept
reminding the house that there are problems the Muslims were facing with
appeared confident that the upcoming Tokyo meeting would be a key
barometer in reflecting international confidence on the process. In
Hakeem’s opinion, the monitoring mechanism should be strengthened and
the peace talks should start dealing with political issues.
SLMC leader, who not so long ago skipped the peace negotiations when his
own leadership was under threat, said that there were attempts by
mediators to get all Muslim MPs to sign a letter calling for a human
rights agenda at the peace talks.
Moragoda kept to the government line that India was kept informed and
that the peace process had only reached a state of trust building and in
the past year what was taking place was the rebuilding of burnt bridges
due to 20 years of war.
the High Security Zone
controversy, Moragoda said that such issues would only be solved
based on mutual trust and that only time will be the witness to its
raised the issue of detractors fanning communal fires and that the
government was engaged in internal confidence building measures with
President Chandrika Kumaratunga.
we have a unique chance. The world is with us. The two parties to the
conflict are talking and the people are telling us, the politicians to
work together,” the young Turk among UNP ranks said.
Tamil parties as a whole commented on the process, but raised issues
that they thought necessary to be addressed more vigorously.
the rhetoric, the one and half days of debating achieved very little.
There was no constructive dialogue that came about. While the likes of
Moragoda were advocating that mutual trust was the only way forward, the
likes of Weerawansa were on the war path. There was no middle ground.
the end of their speeches, both Moragoda and Weerawansa made pleas for
support. “For the sake of the people of Sri Lanka, now is the time for
this chamber to unite in the common cause of peace,” the UNPer
a few hours before, the JVPer made the same appeal, only his motive was
to get the government off its present course of action as soon as
Leader of the House, Richard Pathirana has been out of the picture in
the recent past. The former minister who was at one time the most
vociferous supporter of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his
peace campaign, at times went as far as to say that he had dealt with
the likes of President Ranasinghe Premadasa and that he knew how to
handle the incumbent.
mindset has undergone a drastic change from those days. Last week at the
PA parliamentary group meeting, Pathirana agreed to make way for Anura
Bandaranaike to attend the party leaders’ meetings. He had refused to
accede to the request even when President Chandrika Kumaratunga made it.
But when his overtures to win back the Akmeemana chief organiser post
fell on deaf ears, Pathirana has decided to make way for Bandaranaike.
Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapakse was awaiting Pathirana’s official
letter notifying him that he will not be attending the meetings.
week, Pathirana attended the anti-peace process rally held in
Anuradhapura in the company of the likes of Bandaranaike and JVP’s
was a good crowd,” Pathirana observed later in parliament. He is now
fully lending his weight to the JVP-SLFP tie-up. Pathirana argued that
even the Galle seat that the SLFP lost by 5,000 votes could be won back.
“The JVP secured 40,000 votes, with the help of the JVP, we can win
the bonus seat as well.”
has fallen in his esteem, “there is no point in shouting
peace now because people are hungry,” said Pathirana adding
that his change of heart came about when the people of his electorate
started relating their plight and not because the crossover bid came to
change of heart has however meant that Pathirana has become a spent
force in the eyes of the media. Last week, he had come all the way to
the media dining room to locate a representative from Lake House to
carry a correction. According to him, Dinamina had said that he
was removed from attending the party leaders’ meetings which was not
the calm on the surface, Anura Bandaranaike last week took several
swipes at Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapakse at the Anuradhapura rally.
At one point, Bandaranaike had remarked that political leadership cannot
be achieved by serialising life stories in newspapers.
life story is being serialised in a Sinhala newspaper these days.
has also hit a rosy patch with one of Rajapakse’s staunchest critics,
none other than the JVP’s Weerawansa. The latter made a beeline to
Rosmead Place soon after Bandaranaike returned from the US to discuss
would be interesting to find out how Weerawansa views Bandaranaike’s
affinity to the Yankee country, considering that the JVPer these days is
lambasting government ministers of being “Anglo Saxon Animals.”
to the fore
Rajapakse last week was planning his Jana Gosha protest campaign
scheduled for later this month.
met with Ratnapura MP Pavithra Wanniarachchi and explained to her that
he wants women to play a major role in the campaign. The plan is to get
women to beat empty pots and pans and take the lead. Wanniarachchi for
her part was not really sure whether she could get women to join in big
numbers. The Opposition Leader’s plan is to have a major rally in
Colombo and simultaneously have similar protest campaigns in the
— the answer to PA corruption
the day after her meeting with the Opposition Leader, Wanniarachchi was
in the office of Chief Opposition Whip Mangala Samaraweera with her
husband. The discussion at one point dealt with the Opposition Leader
and his anxiety that he was facing internal rivalries.
three also discussed about corruption in high places with Samaraweera
pointing out that the President should have been strict from the
now with the JVP, our people will not be able to do all that,”
Wanniarachchi observed. Apparently the female legislator from the gem
capital has taken a liking to the JVPers, spending time among them in
the well and sharing an occasional joke.
top UNP leadership last week met with UNICEF Executive Director
Carol Bellamy in parliament. Assisting Prime Minister Ranil
Wickremesinghe at the meeting were Ministers and peace emissaries
Milinda Moragoda and later Prof. G. L. Peiris.
the meeting took place while parliament was debating Wickremesinghe’s
statement after the Oslo donor parley, the debate became a topic of
discussion. Moragoda told the UNICEF representative that the debate at
times was boring. But the Minister was glad at least of certain aspects
of the debate noting that opposition to the peace process was now
limited to rhetoric.
told the government high rankers that she had expected the opposition to
play a part in the process and that if there was more than rhetoric in
the speeches, that would be a different ball game.
confidence on Marapone
meetings are usually a fiery affair. The party representatives have been
haggling for months over the no confidence motion against Defence
Minister Tilak Marapone. The JVP and MEP have been pressing that it be
taken up as soon as possible, but the government has been delaying it.
week, the government agreed to take up the debate by end of this month
or early March. There was no confirmation from the opposition ranks. The
last time such a motion was taken up, against Interior Minister John
Amaratunga, parliament was reduced to a cinema gallery when voting
will only meet for one week this month, that being in the third week.
Though the first week too was set aside for sessions, the government
informed party leaders that there was no business to be taken up.
Initially, some opposition party members had wanted sessions to be held
at least for one day during that week, but as usual, the government’s
JVP-SLFP discussions are progressing satisfactorily, at least that is
the thinking of the supporters’ of such a tie-up. The report on the
progress of the talks is very likely to be submitted to the SLFP Central
Committee soon and from there to the PA Executive Committee.
was speculation in some opposition quarters that a deal might be in
place as early as next month. However, some opposition members were
as to whether the tie-up may not be enough and that elections would be
not far away.
JVP in its very limited public utterances on the discussions has been
shrewd enough to leave out any suggestion of an election to form a new
government. It opposed the UNP moves in 2001, when the 10 opposition
parties set in motion events that would have allowed it to wrest power
without facing an election.
ghost writer at the Lakmina newspaper who is being credited with
creating the assassination story linking a PA strong man is having a
tough time these days. In the national newspaper where he works as a
self proclaimed defence expert, nasty calls are being directed at him
even via the intercom system. The poor man has been reduced to a
blabbering wreck. He is enjoying anything but a Keerthi Namaya.
story is that the man was originally for the greens. A long time ago, he
was paid through the Building Materials Corporation audit when he leaked
information to Ranasinghe Premadasa while being attached to a pro-SLFP
to some, his input to the infamous story has been in deleting the word
‘former.’ The original script had referred to a ‘former PA
strongman.’ The former was edited since it was killing the effect. Now
the poor chap is in a mess that he never bargained for and is having
fits about having to report to the Fourth Floor.