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Editorial

November 18, 2007  Volume 14, Issue 22


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Political back dealing apace as govt. fights to win budget vote


Mahinda Rajapakse, Arjuna Ranatunge, WIJEDASA RAJAPAKSE AND Basil Rajapakse, Ranil Wickremesinghe, Wimal Weerawansa, Nadesan and

Wijedasa rocks government with cross over

Reggie used by President to emotionally
blackmail Arjuna

President offers to visit UNP MPs
houses to lure them

Opposition forces govt. to compromise
on all fronts to survive budget

Arjuna offered Sports Ministry and Cricket Board

While the government went into a tailspin with the crossover of COPE Chairman Wijedasa Rajapakse, rumblings within the administration reached a crescendo last week as the opposition moved at the speed of greased lightning to knock the Rajapakse brothers off their pedestal.

Within hours of this development, equal to the challenge the government hunted for UNP MPs and approached Ratnapura district MP, Mahinda Ratnatilleke with a ministerial offer which he grabbed with both hands.

Ratnatilleke had been approached much earlier by the government with the MP deciding to adopt a wait and see approach but on Wednesday, following Wijedasa’s crossover, the President insisted he makes the move on Thursday and move he did.

Having forced the MP’s hand he was later put up at the Galle Face Hotel suite 2006-2007 with Labour Minister Mervyn Silva making regular visits to ensure all was well and that the UNP did not have access to the MP.

It was President Mahinda Rajapakse who in a show of bravado on national television just a fortnight back challenged the opposition to defeat the budget if they can, a challenge he may well live to rue if the developments leading upto tomorrow’s budget vote is any indication with panic the buzz word at Temple Trees.

All talk, no action

Typical of Rajapakse’s style of governance it was all talk and no real action when it came to the numbers game in Parliament with the State media employed to report on anticipated crossovers from the UNP on a weekly basis, while, Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and SLFP (M) Crossover Mangala Samaraweera worked stealthily to shake the government at its very foundations.

The government, the opposition knew would be weakened whatever the outcome of the budget if any member crossed over to the opposition in addition to the JVP voting against it; and that even if the President succeeds at the budget it was only a matter of time before a wounded administration  succumbs.

For them it was not a question of planting stories that government MPs were to cross over but work the numbers to ensure the job in fact gets done in such a way the government would be forced to compromise on so many fronts, governance would be impossible in the months ahead.

By Friday the question was not ‘if’ the government falls but ‘when,’ with the opposition to decide on the timing of driving the final nail into the administration’s coffin based on their timetable for elections irrespective of UNP crossovers to the government since the President would then be  totally dependant on the CWC, JVP,UNP defectors and the SLMC for his survival.

In a daze

The strategy of the opposition was to deal the government a devastating blow initially with a few crossovers and then decide while the Rajapakse brothers are in a daze when to deliver the knock out punch considering the ideal time for elections.In that context, the question the opposition had to decide was whether it will knock the government out tomorrow when the vote on the second reading is taken, which would mean in the normal course of events,  a general election some time in January or allow it to totter for a while and deal the political death blow on December  14 at the third reading and time the election for early March.

Another school of thought as suggested by the JVP was to weaken the government and allow it to continue till mid year in a compromised form when the economic hardships hit the people hard and then topple.  And the answer for now  appears to be blowing in the wind with both Wickremesinghe and Samaraweera playing their cards close to the chest.

Simple arithmetic

The arithmetic for both the government and the opposition was simple at the time of Wijedasa Rajapakse’s crossover and it was a matter of swinging six votes to defeat the budget provided the TNA and the JVP deliver their number.

As the equation stood, the UNP counted for 44, JVP 38, TNA 22, SLFP (M) 2 and Ven Uduwe Dhammaloka thero making a total of 107 and with Wijedasa the number went up to 108. To the government that was the danger zone. With the crossover of Ratnatilleke it was back to 107.

For a while now all focus was on the JVP with the party opting to play the reluctant bride and not disclose how she would vote at the budget but at the same time making the right noises publicly to indicate where the heart was and in private signalling to Samaraweera and Sooriyaarachchi, the party will vote against the budget.

For the JVP however, the best option was to vote against the budget whilst ensuring a weakened government survives giving them six months to organise for elections before dealing the political death blow to the administration.

It is after receiving this signal that discussions with government members intensified and the COPE Chairman indicated he was prepared to lead the charge given the President’s failure to address issues raised in the COPE report in addition to the disastrous consequences of the budget on the people.

Discussed at length

With the stage thus set, Wickremesinghe and Samaraweera met with Wijedasa on Monday night where issues of concern to the COPE Chairman were discussed at length and agreement reached on how they will be addressed.

Interestingly, minutes before Wijedasa was to leave for the meeting a presidential emissary arrived at his Nugegoda residence to state that the President wanted to meet him and discuss the allocation of a ministry and also discuss other issues of concern to the member. The COPE Chairman said he will revert and excused himself.

Condone corruption

Wijedasa was to tell Wickremesinghe and Samaraweera at their subsequent meeting, he could not with a clear conscience vote for the budget and remain in a government which was condoning corruption and heaping burdens on the people. Wijedasa also said he would prefer to resign if no firm assurances are forthcoming things will be different under a future national council regime rather than continue to be a burden on the tax payer, a message which was well received by Wickremasinghe and Samaraweera.

It is after the COPE Chairman was satisfied the Wickremesinghe-Samaraweera combine will address the issues raised that Wijedasa said he intends crossing over Wednesday morning at the auspicious time of 9.33 a.m.

But the 24 hours leading upto Wednesday was not without drama with the JVP opening up a new front on Tuesday, November 12 by calling on the government to concede four of their demands if the Marxists are to consider voting for the budget.

The near impossible conditions which would not have only isolated Rajapakse internationally but with all the minority parties including those in his government included the dissolution of the All Party Representative Committee, withdrawal from the ceasefire agreement and giving a thumbs down to UN representations.

Dissolve Parliament

Within hours of this announcement, with the intention of causing panic in the JVP, Transport Minister Dulles Alahapperuma was to inform Propaganda Secretary Wimal Weerawansa, the President will have no option but dissolve Parliament unless the Marxists give a clear undertaking they would vote for the budget, a threat that refused to fly.

What the President did not realise in making his assessments was that the JVP rank and file were agitating for the government’s defeat given the hardships faced by the people and  they had told the party in clear terms, voting with the budget would be the death knell of the party.

In fact though four of the ten politburo members were in favour of abstaining, including Somawansa Amarasinghe, Wimal Weerawansa and K. D. Lalkantha, 26 of the 30 member decision making central committee were opposed to the budget and it is as a face saving exit, Amarasinghe was to put forward the four demands, which the Marxists knew the President could never agree to.

Desperate measures

But desperate situations call for desperate measures, and the government soon put it in the grapevine, the four demands would be conceded, the intention being to prevent crossovers to the opposition by signalling the JVP will not oppose the budget.

It was not however lucky days for the government and no sooner this news was leaked, JVP’s Anura Kumara Dissanayake sent word, the party never promised to vote for the budget if the demands are met but only to consider, and that to President Rajapakse was a clear indication where the Marxists stood.

But with panic written all over Temple Trees, the government rose to the bait and sent word to the JVP, they were prepared to ban the LTTE in addition to withdrawing from the CFA. Basically, officially declare war to save the government.

To further show that the President was amenable to the proposals, a letter was sent by Secretary Lalith Weeratunge inviting the JVP for a discussion on the matter, but the party declined the invitation and insisted that Rajapakse implements the demands made.

It is in this backdrop Wijedasa strode into Parliament Wednesday morning and crossed the floor at 9.33 a.m., but not before telephoning his COPE colleagues, Justice Minister Dilan Perera and Deputy Foreign Minister Hussein Bhaila and requesting their presence in the House, without indicating why.

Seven proposals

And in his speech Wijedasa was to submit seven proposals, which included expulsion of two cabinet ministers held responsible for corruption by COPE, removal of Treasury Secretary P.O.B. Jayasundera and Inland Revenue Chief, A. A. Wijepala for the same reasons, the reduction of the cabinet to 30, slashing the President’s budget to Rs. 5 billion, the appointment of a Parliamentary Select Committee to work out a political solution, appointing an active Justice Minister to deal with the rising crime wave and a detailed report explaining how Rs. 29 billion allocated to the budget division was spent.

No sooner Wijedasa made his proposals, the UNP leader was up on his feet, endorsing all seven proposals, thus pulling the JVP also on the defensive and then all hell broke loose with Basil Rajapakse rushing to call his brother, the President.

Taken completely by surprise, government members were huddled in groups at the lobby, with senior Minister D.M. Jayaratne waving to Samaraweera and Sripathi Sooriyaarachchi with a broad smile while Justice Minister Dilan Perera was holding forth on the injustice done to Wijedasa, forcing his crossover.

Identifying crossers

And as the hours ticked by the government was trying to identify other possible crossers over with Arjuna Ranatunga and Nirupama Rajapakse topping the list of suspects whilst separate attempts were made to lure Wijedasa back to the fold.

Towards this end, Basil Rajapakse was to telephone the COPE chairman’s wife and plead with her to talk some sense into her husband, albeit to no avail.

The presidential brother was to tell Wijedasa’s wife he did not know the problems faced by the member but promised to  intervene and sort out matters, conveniently forgetting the fact, he himself had just the previous week created confusion at the COPE meeting resulting in the Chairman walking out.

Ignored calls

However, Wijedasa’s wife reminded Basil Rajapakse of that fact and said all this time, the government ignored calls for action on a number of issues, only to come knocking on their door when the chips are down. She said Wijedasa has made up his mind and there was no turning back now.

And as concern mounted at Temple Trees Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse met with Wijedasa Thursday and pleaded for the member’s return to no avail.

As a compromise, Gotabhaya wanted the COPE chairman at least to meet with the President, which he did yesterday where the discussion ended with Wijedasa insisting that his proposals be implemented if he is to vote for the budget.

Ironically, though the meeting ended with no agreement the government leaked a story a compromise was reached in the belief it will help to stem the tide.

In the meantime fearing Arjuna Ranatunga might vote against the budget, President Rajapakse contacted his father Governor Reggie Ranatunga Wednesday and urged him to meet his son to find out what the real situation was and said to dissuade him from taking any drastic action.

Hard to swallow

With that brief, Governor Ranatunga went to see Arjuna at his Nugegoda residence Wednesday night where a lengthy discussion ensued and ‘Captain Cool’ told his father with characteristic calm, there was no way he can vote for the budget, a decision the elder Ranatunga found hard to swallow.

Said Reggie Ranatunga — “Please don’t do that because we must not be responsible for the government’s collapse. The President is agreeable to address your concerns.”

However, Arjuna told his Governor father, no one was there to assist him when there were all sorts of problems and that only now were they coming due to fear of losing the budget vote.

Not relenting, Reggie Ranatunga continued to urge Arjuna to reconsider his decision but ‘Captain Cool’ would not budge telling his father he has already given a word to the opposition and will not dishonour it.

Many telephone calls

And even as the elder Ranatunga was talking to Arjuna at least two other persons, Basil Rajapakse and Mervyn Silva kept telephoning promising ‘Captain Cool’ the Sports Ministry and the chairmanship of the cricket board in exchange for his vote but the man would not budge.

But the President did not relent either  and when informed by Reggie of his son’s decision Rajapakse insisted he be brought to meet him early Thursday morning and once again the father was compelled to draw on his emotions to do the cajoling.

Explaining that the pressure was too much for him to take, Reggie Ranatunga told Arjuna to at least meet with the President before taking a firm decision and finally the son agreed to do so for the father’s sake.

Not mince his words

Accordingly, Thursday morning, Arjuna met with the President, where Rajapakse asked what the member proposed to do and not mincing his words ‘Captain Cool’ said his mind was made up and that he  would be voting against the budget.

He told the President, Sri Lanka’s Sports administration was in an absolute mess with no attention paid despite it being brought to Rajapakse’s notice on many occasions and as such there was little purpose in him remaining in such a government.

Added Arjuna for effect — “As for the economy, there is no point in even talking about it because the people can hardly live.”

Stooping to conquer, the President continued to tell Arjuna if he remains in government, all issues raised can be addressed by himself but ‘Captain Cool’ said it was too late since he has already made his decision.

This meeting was followed by Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle visiting Arjuna’s residence Thursday night where once again more pressure was mounted.

Finally Thursday night after Reggie, upon pressure from the President, told Arjuna his life was in his son’s hands, ‘Captain Cool’ agreed to watch till Monday.

Sense of desperation

It is thus in a sense of desperation the President moved to take UNP Ratnapura District MP, Mahinda Ratnatilleke, despite him being accused of being party to former SLFP MP, Nalanda Ellawala’s murder. Only the previous day, the President had inducted UNP provincial council Member Duminda Silva, who is currently facing a rape trial in the High Court.

In fact on Wednesday, at the cabinet meeting it was an angry President who asked the Ministers almost mockingly, how many MPs had crossed over that day.

With the ministers in unison stating, only one, responded the President — “So how many will go tomorrow lets see, will you (Balamuko).”

And then, the President fell back on the usual bogey of a ‘Tiger deal’ stating the LTTE was party to the conspiracy to defeat the government and it was hatched in a Colombo five star hotel.

“I won’t give the name of the hotel because, everything that is said here is leaked to ‘The Sunday Leader and Mirror,’ the President said.

Be that as it may, the President’s move to take Ratnatilleke backfired with Justice Minister Dilan Perera resigning from the party’s Central Committee, alleging in a devastating statement that while dignified people like Wijedasa Rajapakse crossed over to the opposition, the government was accepting murderers and rapists from the UNP.

Compromise itself

But the government was hellbent on securing the numbers while Wickremasinghe and Samaraweera who met Thursday night decided to hold their horses till Monday, allowing the government to first exhaust all possible strategies and compromise itself politically before moving to the next stage of the game plan.

And this strategy the opposition decided after they heard the President had invited all government MPs for a meeting at 4 p.m. Sunday (today) followed by dinner to count his numbers. With the news reaching the opposition, their secret numbers were asked to attend the dinner lest the government becomes suspicious.

However, one minister who has decided on his own not to attend today’s meeting is National Heritage Minister Anura Bandaranaike with him planning a move of his own tomorrow. Bandaranaike has not been attending Parliament from budget day and even when told by the President’s office Wednesday to rush to Parliament, refused to budge.

That apart, the President has also attempted to woo several MPs including  Abdul Cader, Dunesh Gankanda, Earl Gunasekera, Mohamed Maharoof, Chandrani Bandara, Champika Premadasa, Jayawickrema Perera, all of whom have not only declined offers made but also kept the UNP leadership informed.

Not be at home

In one desperate attempt, the President had on Thursday night wanted to visit the residence of MPs Alick Aluvihare and Ranjith Aluvihare and were told politely they will not be at home. At the same time, his Co ordinating Secretary Sajin Vaas Gunewardene had approached Gankanda who had said not to insult him by coming with such offers.

Likewise an angry Basil Rajapakse had telephoned UNP MP, Jayalath Jayewardena and warned that UNP Leader Ranil Wickremasinghe will be replaced as Opposition  Leader with JVP’s Somawansha Amarasinghe because of the attempts to get government members to cross over.

Said Basil Rajapakse - “We should have an understanding not to take MPs from each other. Ranil has broken that understanding.”

Replied Jayewardena -”How can there be any understanding when you took 18 of our MPs first.”

Shot back Basil - “that is before. Now, after the budget, we will oust Ranil and make Somawansha Amerasinghe the Opposition Leader.”

Asked Jayewardena -”How can you do that, he is not in Parliament.”

Retorted Basil - “I will resign and appoint him on the national list of the UPFA and get him appointed as Opposition Leader.”

All these panic reactions were also a clear signal that the government was convinced the JVP will vote against the budget and others saw an opportunity in this uneasiness. 

And realising the government was in a state of panic, the CWC and the SLMC, counting among them 12 MPs also moved in for the kill and in separate meetings with Basil Rajapakse and Jeyaraj Fernandopulle demanded their pounds of flesh.

This caving in by the government to the demands made by the JVP, SLMC, CWC, UNP defectors and JHU is just what the doctor ordered for the opposition as per the game plan set by Wickremasinghe and Samaraweera with President Rajapakse irredeemably compromised, making governance in its weeks and months ahead, near impossible.

Thus, whatever the outcome of the budget, the country is heading for a political roller coaster in the weeks ahead and the people will do well to tighten their seat belts..

 


 


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