11th April, 2004  Volume 10, Issue 39

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Politics

 Inside Politic
PM stakes and the war setting

By Suranimala 

With a hung parliament the order of the day, back room political manoeuvering by the major political parties is continuing apace and Sri Lanka seems set for a roller coaster ride that will land her in hot water sooner than later.

Chandrika Kumaratunga, Mahinda Rajapakse,
Uduwe Dhammaloka Thero and R. Sampanthan

The priority of business as far as the newly elected United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) government is concerned is securing President Chandrika Kumaratunga's political future, hence the decision to rush through with a constituent assembly which will provide for the abolition of the executive presidency and a change in the present electoral system.

Even though this futile attempt is to be made outside the existing constitution within a four month time frame, it would necessarily have to be approved by the people at a referendum and that requires a contented public, to achieve which the government must deliver on the promises made.

The promises made range from fertiliser subsidies, reduction in the cost of living, a 70 percent salary hike and creation of 30,000 jobs within three months just for starters, which to fulfill will cause a huge drain in the state's coffers and promises the IMF Country Representative, Jeremy Carter is on record stating are not practicable.

But if the President is to succeed in her endeavour to push through a new constitution even by adopting extra-constitutional means, public support is paramount and as such she will have no choice but to deliver on the promises irrespective of the cost to the nation in political, economic and security terms.

Even at the best of times, adopting extra-constitutional means to push through a new constitution is a tough task and more so in today's context of a hung parliament where the Freedom Alliance can only count for 106 seats and 45 percent of the people's vote as opposed to the 119 members arrayed against it, accounting for over 53 percent of the public vote.

And there is no gainsaying, the UNP, CWC, SLMC, JHU, UPF and the TNA are all opposed to any tinkering with the constitution and have gone on record so stating.

As far as the UNP, CWC, UPF, TNA and the SLMC are concerned, there is total opposition to both the abolition of the executive presidency as well as a change in the electoral system and will fight tooth and nail to prevent such changes being enacted.

Muslim Congress view

The Muslim Congress for example has already come out strongly stating, the party is of the "firm view" there is no adequate mandate as required by the constitution to introduce any changes as envisaged by pronouncements made by the President on behalf of her party.

"We therefore call upon Her Excellency to abandon the idea of piecemeal reform or total overhaul of the constitution outside the existing legal framework and to reach political consensus with all parties without recourse to ad hoc measures, having disastrous consequences to the country and its people," the Congress had said.

Equally vocal has been the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), which though opposed to the political parties based on ethnic minorities, has found common cause on the issue of the constituent assembly move albeit for different reasons.

The JHU has also criticised the move as an attempt to cater to the President's personal political ambitions as opposed to the overall national interest and charged constitutions cannot be changed for personal reasons.

Needless to say, the TNA has been equally critical, not prepared to so much as look at the proposal until such time a solution to the ethnic issue is also incorporated in the new constitution.

Thus, with President Kumaratunga stating in an address to the nation her first order of business is the introduction of a new constitution through a constituent assembly, the opposition has been pushed into one corner, giving it a collective strength of 119 in parliament.

It is important to note here that none of the parties in parliament barring the UPFA want a change in the electoral system either since it would be to the detriment of all smaller parties including the CWC, SLMC, JHU, TNA and the UPF.

But the President is fighting against time and having pushed the country into an election for the very purpose of adopting a new constitution, she is now adamant to go through with the process come hell or high water.

It is factors flowing from this very issue which nearly derailed the Freedom Alliance hardly 48 hours after the election with the prime ministerial stakes being a thorn in the flesh of the President.

The President's mindset was that the executive presidency would be abolished within four months and she would revert to parliament as prime minister by getting one of the national list nominees to step down for her and accordingly decided Mary Lucida, wife of Colombo District candidate Mervyn Silva, will be appointed for that purpose.

The more important issue however was the appointment of the prime minister, since she had to make sure the person named would resign for her once the executive presidency is abolished, for otherwise she would be out of a job.

And the man she trusted to keep the seat warm for her was none other than former Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar who was to be in turn appointed the figure head president following the abolition of the executive presidency.

But the outgoing Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapakse who had stuck with the party during good times and bad had other ideas and made it known he was interested in the job.

The first setback

The first setback for the President in going through with her choice of prime minister came no sooner the preference votes count came in and it slowly but surely dawned on the SLFP that they have been right royally suckered by the JVP with many a member out on the streets.

The SLFP which enjoyed 77 seats in parliament compared to the JVP's 16 while being in the opposition from 2002-2004 was in government reduced to a mere 57 seats in comparison to the JVP's 39. The LSSP, CP, MEP, NUA and the Athaullah group all ended up with 1, 2, 2, 2, and 2 seats respectively making up the total of 105.

What was significant in this development was not just the JVP snapping at the SLFP's heels with 39 seats but relegating top SLFPers to third and fourth slots in most districts in a clear indication, the people's mandate was not for the SLFP but the JVP.

However, despite the juggernaut of the JVP in SLFP strongholds including the Bandaranaike bastion of the Gampaha District, Mahinda Rajapakse held his own in the JVP fortress of Hambantota emerging number one and holding the SLFP lines in the district.

Thus, when it came to the prime ministerial stakes, SLFP stalwarts realised the only option available to it to prevent complete annihilation of the SLFP by the JVP at the next election and to rebuild the party was by having a man of Rajapakse's calibre for the top post notwithstanding JVP objections. It was a case of once bitten twice shy and that message was made clear to Kumaratunga.

But Kumaratunga had other ideas given her own agenda and called Rajapakse for a meeting on Sunday, April 4, to discuss the prime ministerial stakes and was told the President's choice for prime minister is Lakshman Kadirgamar.

The battle-hardened Rajapakse however was not prepared to take the decision lying down and told the President he cannot accept such an appointment since the post is rightfully his.

Rajapakse told the President he was the leader of the opposition, stood by the party through thick and thin, held his own in Hambantota despite attempts by the JVP to put him down on the preference vote race and was therefore not prepared to concede the post to Kadirgamar. Even Kadirgamar's threats to call it quits did not sway Rajapakse. He had played second fiddle long enough.

Do not push the party into a crisis so soon after the election, Rajapakse warned, taking confidence in the fact he had the blessings of Indian High Commissioner Nirupam Sen as well.

The President was equally adamant to have her way informing Rajapakse she wanted Kadirgamar as prime minister to steer through the new constitution through the constituent assembly.

Replied Rajapakse, "I can do it too. I have experience in parliament from 1970 and am also a lawyer and can handle it."

Not about to give in, the President told Rajapakse the problem with him was the perception he was too close to the UNP.

Shot back Rajapakse - "If that is the case, it is more the reason to appoint me so that I can use my good offices to steer the constitution through successfully."

Then came the President's real reason for holding out on Rajapakse. Said she - "But what guarantee do I have that you will resign in four months after the constitution is adopted?"

No mean politician himself, Rajapakse told the President she should take his word for it but if there was a lack of trust, a letter could be given pledging to resign when the new constitution is adopted.

Of course Rajapakse, a lawyer by profession, knew only too well such a letter will not have legal authority and that the President herself had given many such letters including to the JVP on the abolition of the executive presidency and the speaker on the non-dissolution of parliament, all of which were not worth the paper written on when it came to implementation.

Pressure

All too aware how ineffective these written assurances are given her own tactics, the President told Rajapakse she was prepared to consider his appointment if he could deliver seven more members of parliament to give the government the required 113 for a stable administration, a challenge he accepted.

But in doing so Rajapakse made sure sufficient pressure was mounted on the President to concede the post even without the numbers and that job was spearheaded by SLFP General Secretary, Maithripala Sirisena who went and impressed on Kumaratunga the importance of appointing Rajapakse to avert an inevitable split.

At the same time, Rajapakse lobbied CWC Leader, Armugam Thondaman for his support while also calling on JHU Colombo District Leader, Ven. Uduwe Dhammaloka Thero the very Sunday for the support of the nine bhikkus.

Rajapakse said there was a very real threat the President may appoint Kadirgamar as prime minister of Sri Lanka unless the JHU helps the UPFA form the government.

The JHU, Ven. Dhammaloka Thero said, has decided not to join any side but would endorse Rajapakse for prime minister as opposed to Kadirgamar. The message received by Rajapakse was that the JHU would not welcome the appointment of Kadirgamar as prime minister.

The choice of a Tamil Christian as prime minister was anathema to the JHU, though for the President it was the best choice to ensure he would resign in four months to make way for her given those very credentials.

Thondaman for his part said his party would prefer to adopt a wait-and-see policy for the time being.

By this time pressure was mounting on the President from all quarters to appoint Rajapakse and was reluctantly compelled to do so after obtaining assurances he would step down in four months. Rajapakse was to also not move into Temple Trees since Kumaratunga would be doing so after the executive presidency is abolished. At least for now that is the agreement.

A quite agitated Rajapakse was in writing given instructions on what he should say on these matters, particularly about not shifting into the Prime Minister's official residence, Temple Trees.

Interestingly, in the bid to get Rajapakse appointed as premier, people with varied agendas were lobbying diverse groups and a case in point was Milina Sumathipala, the mother of former Cricket Board Chief, Thilanga currently in remand custody.

Milina Sumathipala, who called on Ven. Uduwe Dhammaloka Thero at the Asapuwa down Sulaiman Terrace, Colombo, pleaded for the JHU's backing of Rajapakse's candidature stating, "Mahinda Rajapakse agamathi wunoth, mage kolla beraganna puluwan." (I can save my boy if Mahinda Rajapakse becomes Prime Minister.)

Greater cause

The venerable monk later communicated these sentiments to members of the JHU, who took the view the party was formed not to cater to individuals' personal agendas but the greater cause of the nation.

Likewise, Navy Commander Daya Sandagiri also called on Ven. Dhammaloka Thero stating he was a personal emissary of the President who had come to solicit the support of the JHU for the Freedom Alliance.

Sandagiri pleading the case of the Freedom Alliance had asked the Thero whether the JHU cannot at least give conditional support to form a stable government but received no such assurances.

The Navy Chief was told the JHU would support any government which commits itself to a demerger of the north east, rejects federalism and introduces anti religious conversion legislation amongst a number of other issues.

With the going thus getting tough, President Kumaratunga called UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and asked whether he could meet with her.

Wickremesinghe indicated to the President he would be leaving Colombo by the weekend and was available before that and Kumaratunga was to later invite him for a meeting Wednesday evening at 5:30 p.m.

But prior to ringing off Kumaratunga had inquired whether Wickremesinghe could be present at Rajapakse's oath-taking ceremony, which invitation the UNP Leader declined stating he would be at the party's working committee meeting at the auspicious hour.

Having being lied to at every turn, Wickremesinghe now fully realises dealing with Kumaratunga will only be to his detriment and told his working committee and MPs, there is no question of any cohabitation with the new government and that the party would be revamped by end April with a three month deadline to topple the government.

And when Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe finally met, there was no serious discussion on any particular issue though the UNP Leader said he would support the peace process provided the agreements hitherto reached including the Tokyo Declaration is honoured.

The question however is whether the peace talks can even get started and the executive presidency abolished using the constituent assembly mechanism given this overall state of play with even Rajapakse not too keen on it, wanting instead to run as the UPFA candidate if the constituent assembly strategy collapses.

Bitter at the conditions imposed in giving him the premiership, Rajapakse is not likely to let go and has already been advised by confidants to dig his heels in and consolidate his position to deal Kumaratunga a fait accompli.

Furthermore, given the divergent views emerging on the ethnic issue, the peace process itself will be a non-starter with Kumaratunga unable to even get the talks started in the foreseeable future.

On the contrary, the events last week could well lead to a situation of a severe backlash from the LTTE given the conduct of the President and the security forces over the five TNA MPs from the Batticaloa and Ampara Districts considered loyal to renegade Commander Karuna.

It is now clear Army Commander  Lionel Balagalle in consultation with President Kumaratunga has maintained links with Karuna, though the five MPs elected opted to work with the rest of the TNA parliamentarians elected on April 2.

TNA meeting

Accordingly, when the newly elected TNA parliamentarians met for the first time after the election, the five MPs, T. Kanagasabei, K. Thangeswari, K. Rasanayagam, S. Jeyanandamoorthy and K. Pathmanathan were present and not only endorsed the appointment of R. Sampanthan as the parliamentary group leader but also that the LTTE will be the sole representatives of the Tamils.

It was at the follow up meeting in Colombo on Wednesday, April 7, held at Gajan Ponnambalam's residence down Queens Road that trouble started brewing when the army forced the five Eastern Province MPs to leave with them to Batticaloa.

Since the split in the LTTE, the army has provided security to the Eastern Province members who were said to be Karuna loyalists and the army security team headed by Major Tilak Sumanaratne accompanied the five newly elected Eastern Province MPs to Ponnambalam's house for Wednesday's meeting.

While the major stood outside, the 20 TNA MPs elect discussed future strategy and their decision to function as one cohesive unit in parliament, thus giving the TNA a total strength of 22 MPs with the two national list allocations.

In such a situation, given the fact the UPFA has only 105 plus one with Douglas Devananda, the combined opposition of the UNF and the TNA without the JHU counts for 110 and if these two parties were to combine in parliament, the UPFA would be perpetually outnumbered given that the JHU is to steer an independent course.

Thus the strategy of the President is to either lure the Karuna group MPs to her camp or keep them out of the way when it comes to voting time, particularly the speaker's post which comes up for decision on April 22. But this plan was coming acropper with all 22 MPs deciding to stick together.

Not only did they decide to stick together but issued a joint statement wherein it was stated inter alia - "In view of the speculative reports in the media, all members of parliament elected from the north eastern region in the name of Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchchi emphatically state that we are unequivocally and irrevocably committed to the political aspirations of the Tamil people for over the past 50 years for self rule in a unified north eastern region, which has been the acknowledged historical habitation of the Tamil speaking people."

This statement not only cut across the UPFA manifesto policy for negotiations with the LTTE but also ran counter to Karuna's own statements of demerging the northeast.

And having approved the statement, the five MPs from Batticaloa and Ampara said their movements were restricted by the army and would prefer to stay at a location found by the TNA since deliberations had to continue for at least a couple more days. The army pressure was all the more evident with the major coming in at regular intervals and informing the five MPs it was time to leave.

With that said, Sampanthan called the major who was waiting outside and said the five MPs prefer to stay in terms of arrangements made by the TNA to which the officer did not agree.

The army officer said his instructions are otherwise and unless he receives orders from the top, he would be compelled to take them back to Batticaloa after the meeting.

Disturbed

Quite disturbed at this turn of events, Sampanthan spoke to Defence Secretary Cyril Herath and said the MPs should be free to make their own decisions and not be compelled to leave for Batticaloa.

Sampanthan also told Herath he would call back in 15 minutes for clearance but could not thereafter reach the Defence Secretary.

In the meantime, Major Sumanaratne came in again and told the MPs he had instructions from the brigade commander at Welikanda to escort them back to Batticaloa and could not delay any longer.

Not relenting however, Sampanthan thereafter spoke to the brigade commander in Welikanda and explained the need for the five MPs to stay in Colombo for a few more days.

Said Sampanthan - "I am the parliamentary group leader. The five MPs have to stay for further consultations. If the army wants, they can stay with the MPs but they have to be in Colombo. Otherwise the army can withdraw and come back after our consultations are over in a few days."

Within minutes thereafter Major Sumanaratne came back in, shook hands and said he would be leaving and would return when they are ready to leave after their consultations in a couple of days.

But the drama was far from over and not long after the major was back again, stating he had received fresh instructions to take the five MPs back to Batticaloa straightaway.

Visibly angry by this time, Sampanthan tried to reach Army Commander Balagalle with little success, being told continuously he was not available.

This led to more discussion among the TNA MPs, and Sampanthan called back Balagalle but identified himself as Kanagasabei, one of the Batticaloa district MPs and within seconds, the Army Commander was on line.

Feeble excuse

Having got him on the line, Sampanthan identified himself and explained once again why the MPs had to stay put in Colombo for a few more days.

The Army Commander did not agree and told Sampanthan he had written instructions to take the five MPs back to Batticaloa.

Asked Sampanthan - "Written instructions from whom?"

Replied Balagalle - "From the secretaries of the MPs."

Shocked at Balagalle's feeble excuse, Sampanthan asked whether the secretaries can decide for the MPs, when the MPs themselves were agreeable to stay for further consultations.

While this conversation was going on, the five MPs got a call directly from the east no less communicated through the security and the panic stricken MPs said in the overall circumstances, they would return to Batticaloa but come back by April 16.

Whether that will now happen remains to be seen but for the LTTE leadership in the Wanni, it was the surest proof Kumaratunga and Balagalle were sowing the seeds of dissent in the organisation and ruled out any dealings with the new government.

In fact, just weeks before the April 2 elections, the Wanni leadership communicated to the President's office through the Norwegians that they suspected Balagalle of handling Karuna and it could lead to a serious setback for the peace process in the event of the UPFA being elected.

And just 48 hours after the return of the eastern MPs to Batticaloa, the LTTE started an all out offensive in the east against Karuna and it is a matter of time before the Sri Lankan security forces are drawn into battle.

That then is what the President and her advisers have through this election visited on this country.


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