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 Politics  

Govt's election dilemma and the Indian ceasefire factor


Mahinda Rajapakse, Pranab Mukherjee,
Rohitha Bogollagama, Karu Jayasuriya,
Manmohan Singh and Pillayan

Economy in trouble as ETA pulls
out of US$ 1.5bn investment

Pillayan, Karuna to part ways
at general election

Indian FM will push for ceasefire
which UNP opposes

Karu J. tells defectors it's decision
time for him

Rohitha agrees to lead delegtion
to EU for talks on GSP Plus

 

While President Mahinda Rajapakse is expected this week  to decide the government's election agenda in the face of mounting economic problems, the stage was being set internationally to pressure the government into a ceasefire at a time the opposition has come out publicly opposing such a move.

For a President contemplating a general election, the developing economic and political scenarios from the oil hedging disaster to the crisis in the east are nightmares which he can ill afford to lose sleep over with only the war against the LTTE, a factor in the government's favour and Rajapakse knows it only too well.

The President's dilemma however is whether he can risk it all at an election on the basis the ground situation in the Wanni will not change during the campaign period despite words of bravado from Velupillai Pirapaharan, knowing fully well the economic situation will turn for the worse.

For, the President knows the overall economic and political climate will free fall in the months ahead, making it even more difficult to go for a poll, hence his dilemma.

Nightmare conditions

Already private sector business houses are feeling the economic crunch with salaries getting delayed, bonuses being postponed, staff laid off and senior management taking pay cuts while the government is defaulting in payments due for services rendered while banks are also reconsidering their loan options to the state in the wake of the controversy surrounding the oil hedging deal and the Supreme Court order that followed.

This economic situation is set to get worse in the months ahead as the government struggles to meet its housekeeping bills and with devaluation of the rupee being inevitable in the overall economic climate facing the country, inflation will soar even higher and needless to say will not be the ideal conditions for an election.

Such is the economic environment in the country even the Emirates Trading Agency (ETA) which undertook to develop an oil refinery in Hambantota at a cost of US $1.5 billion for which the government had allocated 500 acres of land has now decided to pull out due to their banks not willing to risk the investment.

In what will no doubt come as a shock to the President, the ETA is expected to write to him within the next two weeks and notify the decision taken by the company due to the banks pulling out support.

 TMVP split

To make matters worse, the much-trumpeted liberation of the Eastern Province is also in a state of flux with killings on the increase and the TMVP deeply divided, making it fertile ground for LTTE infiltration.

In fact, President Rajapakse in making his electoral calculations was counting on the Eastern Province to deliver him a handsome majority vis-a-vis the TMVP to offset the JVP's seats in the south but that no longer is a certainty given the split between Karuna and Pillayan with the duo set to go their own ways come a general election.

Indeed, Pillayan has already gone on public record stating Karuna does not have any public support and challenged him to contest a future election if he dared whilst also criticising the government for not devolving adequate power to the Eastern Province under the 13th Amendment.

This statement Pillayan has made knowing fully well the Tamils in the east are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the government yet again due to the prevalent violence and the lack of a role for them in the development process where Karuna is viewed as a "quisling" of the 'Sinhala State.'

What Pillayan has thus attempted to do is project Karuna as a government lackey whilst presenting himself as fighting for the rights of the Eastern Tamils.

The crisis within the TMVP came to a head after the killing of party president Ragu who was also Pillayan's private secretary, and not so subtle allegations were leveled against Karuna whilst the latter pointed the finger at the LTTE. And attempts by Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse to resolve the dispute at a joint meeting with the warring parties also proved futile.

What the President banked on was the UPFA getting up to 108 parliamentary seats with TMVP's support in the east and then luring at least five opposition MPs to reach the magical 113 needed to form a government after a general election but those calculations have now gone haywire given the Karuna-Pillayan split, making the election decision a nightmare.

Vagaries of PR

The fact is even in April 2004, the UPFA which included the JVP mustered only 105 seats and had to look for support from the JHU and defectors from the UNP, SLMC and CWC to prop it up and the President is fully alive to the vagaries of the proportional representation system, more so when there is a three corner fight between the UNP, JVP and SLFP.

It is for this reason the President looked to the TMVP hoping the party can deliver at least 10 seats for the UPFA from the east as opposed to the four the party got in 2004, of which two were from the JVP.

But that is no longer a factor the President can bank on given the TMVP spilt which climaxed on Tuesday, December 2, when the All Party Representative Committee met in Colombo.

The stage for open confrontation between Pillayan and Karuna came after the TMVP General Secretary E. Kaileswararajah wrote to APRC Chairman Tissa Vitharana expressing the party's decision not to attend the sittings as a mark of protest over the killings in the east, which letter saw Senior Presidential Advisor Basil Rajapakse getting activated.

Karuna's lies

With the APRC being the showcase to the world in general and India in particular of the government's commitment to a political solution, Rajapakse called on Karuna to fill the void and obliging, he fired a salvo to Vitharana on a parliamentary letterhead.

In that letter Karuna appointed two 'TMVP members' to represent the party at the APRC and signed off as 'TMVP president' which Vitharana was not prepared to accept at face value considering the letter already before him signed by the General Secretary notifying the boycott.

Accordingly, Minister Vitharana consulted the Elections Commissioner to ascertain who the legitimate office bearers of the TMVP are and was told the designated General Secretary is Kaileswararajah and the President, Ragu. Simply put Karuna had in writing lied when he signed off as 'TMVP president' much as he did when he traveled to London on forged documents.

It is in this backdrop the APRC met, and present for the meeting were Karuna's two nominees who Minister Vitharana refused to accommodate until the issue was resolved and accordingly put the two contending letters to the members present.

Vitharana said he inquired from the Elections Commissioner who the office bearers of the TMVP were and received the names of Kaileswararajah and Ragu as General Secretary and President respectively. He also said the original TMVP nominees to the APRC had also been made by the designated general secretary.

Shown the door

Having listened to Minister Vitharana, the APRC members said Karuna had no status to nominate members to represent the TMVP at the APRC and that they should be given a cup of tea and asked to leave.

And so they were sent packing but the issue was far from over with Attorney Nizam Kariappar of the SLMC holding forth on the APRC becoming a forum for the government to split political parties and nothing more.

Said Kariappar - "The APRC has achieved one thing. It has not solved the ethnic problem. It has only facilitated the breaking up of political parties starting from the All Ceylon Muslim Congress, the UNP (D) Group, the LTTE breakaway group in the form of the TMVP, then inviting JVP breakaway group the NFF and now a breakaway group of the TMVP itself. This is absurd."

Be that as it may, the message to the President in the light of TMVP's split was that he can no longer count on the east to deliver him the numbers anticipated at an election, hence having to go back to the drawing boards to make his electoral calculations before taking a final decision.

Earful from Pope

This issue was to also have a ripple effect with Tamil Nadu too taking up the issue and pointing out that the government had no intention of devolving political power to the Tamils, thus necessitating an immediate ceasefire and calling on the Rajapakse administration to submit a viable political package at the earliest.

Interestingly, even as Tamil Nadu politics was reaching boiling point over this issue, President Rajapakse was to get an earful from Pope Benedict XII at the Vatican on the need for a negotiated settlement.

The President who met the Pontiff on Monday, December 1 was told to bring a 'just and lasting political solution' through negotiations rather than look to a military solution.

"The cordial discussions took into consideration the present situation in Sri Lanka in order to underline the necessity of meeting the basic needs of the deeply affected civilian population and consolidating the path of dialogue and negotiation, which is the only way to reach a just and lasting political solution to the ongoing conflict," the Holy See said in a statement after the audience.

And the very next day, Tuesday more pressure was mounted on the government, this time in New Delhi where an all party delegation of 35 parliamentarians from both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha led by Union Shipping Minister T. Baalu met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and pushed for a ceasefire in Sri Lanka.

Humanitarian crisis

The MPs told the Prime Minister the humanitarian crisis in the Wanni was grave and that unless immediate steps were taken to ensure a ceasefire, there will be a fall out in Tamil Nadu at a time India was facing a grave security crisis as evidenced from the Mumbai terror attack.

The Prime Minister was also told Tamil Nadu has hitherto remained calm and that the Sri Lankan crisis should not allow unscrupulous people and groups to sow the seeds of dissension in the state and as such there must be "more serious intervention" from the Indian government to ensure a ceasefire.

The India Premier having listened to his MPs gave an assurance he would do everything possible to find a political solution to this crisis in view of the suffering the Tamil civilians were undergoing.

Further, Congress Party Chief from Tamil Nadu, V. Thangabalu used the opportunity to urge the Indian Prime Minister to push for the full implementation of the Indo-Lanka Agreement in letter and spirit, which too Manmohan Singh promised to look into.

Role of TNA

Thangabahu referred to comments made by Eastern Province Chief Minister Pillayan in particular on the lack of powers given to the council and said the government must be told to honour the agreement.

Prior to this meeting of course several TNA MPs had briefed the MPs from Tamil Nadu on the ground situation and said if the government submits a viable political package, the LTTE stands ready to enter in to unconditional talks, which case was also placed before Manmohan Singh.

And after the meeting Kanimozhi, Rajya Sabha member and daughter of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Muthuvel Karunanidhi had this to say - "The Prime Minister expressed his concern over the plight of Tamils in the war affected areas when the MPs complained that the food, medicines and other relief materials sent by India had not reached the affected Tamils properly. Dr. Singh said he would take up the matter with Colombo."

She was to also state that given the feelings expressed by the Prime Minister, the MPs were confident something would be done by India immediately, words no doubt which will not be music to President Rajapakse's ears considering the UNP opposing any ceasefire at this point of time.

Within 48 hours of this meeting, Prime Minister Singh in the company of External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee met with Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Karunanidhi and a delegation of politicians from the state representing the DMK, Congress, PMK, CPI and several smaller parties where once again the focus was on the humanitarian crisis in the Wanni and the urgent need for a ceasefire.

This delegation stressed the need to ensure a ceasefire as a matter of urgency due to the tense situation developing in Tamil Nadu and submitted a memorandum detailing the ground situation in the Wanni.

Details of memorandum

The memorandum stated inter alia - "The Centre should urge the Sri Lankan Government to ensure proper relief and rehabilitation measures for the war affected Sri Lankan civilian Tamils by providing food, shelter, medicines and also cooperate in proper distribution of relief materials by the international community in the war-affected areas."

After giving the delegation a patient hearing, Prime Minister Singh said he would send External Affairs Minister Mukherjee to Sri Lanka with a strong message urging a ceasefire between the security forces and the LTTE.

Said Karunanidhi to the media after the meeting - "I requested the Prime Minister to send Mukherjee to issue a strong warning to the Sri Lankan government to announce a ceasefire immediately and to hold peaceful negotiations with them. The Prime Minister agreed to send the Foreign Minister to Sri Lanka and told me that he will travel to the island as soon as possible."

No sooner the meeting with the Prime Minister ended, Karunanidhi had a discussion with Congress Party Leader Sonia Gandhi where once again he explained the situation in Sri Lanka and said the LTTE stands ready to enter into negotiations if the government agrees to an unconditional ceasefire.

Rajapakse's call

Needless to say the very fact Prime Minister Singh and Mukherjee found time to meet twice in as many days on the Sri Lankan issue despite having to deal with the Mumbai terror attack and the visit of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice signaled the importance New Delhi attached to the Sri Lankan situation and it remains to be seen how President Rajapakse will respond.

For President Rajapakse who has placed all his political eggs in the war basket, it will be political suicide to agree to a ceasefire, more so now with the UNP also opposing it and asking the government to bring a speedy end to the war as promised by end December.

It is to hold the government to do so by end December that the UNP did not oppose the defence budget on Thursday and went so far as to agitate against a ceasefire, and given this backdrop, the President will be hard put to agree for a ceasefire notwithstanding Indian pressure.

After all this is a government that has vowed not to compromise national sovereignty at any cost as was seen recently over the GSP Plus issue and to now agree to a ceasefire will be political hara kiri, moreso when Kilinochchi is yet to be liberated.

The President of course can overcome this pressure by dissolving parliament and telling India the issue can be looked at after the election by which time India too would be on election mode making the Sri Lankan crisis not as important in the overall scheme of things but the test for the President is to make that final call.

Interestingly, it is Senior Presidential Advisor Basil Rajapakse who is most keen on an election and has lobbied the President heavily on the issue and urged other members to do likewise.

In fact when Resettlement Minister Rishard Bathiudeen told Basil Rajapakse last week it was best to go for a general election now before the economic crisis hits Sri Lanka in all its ferocity, Basil was to tell the Minister, that is what he too was agitating for.

"Why don't you go and tell the President to do it," Rajapakse had said.

Thus with Mukherjee due to arrive in Sri Lanka this week, the President will have some quick decisions to make and he may well do so given the air time he has reserved on state run Rupavahini and ITN for early next week.

Rumblings in Govt.

In the meantime, the rumblings within the government over internal issues also intensified even as UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe went in to attack mode taking on the government, media, Central Bank Governor and Minister G.L Peiris over the GSP Plus issue.

Sensing a growing conflict between Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama and International Trade Minister G.L. Peiris over the GSP Plus strategy, the Opposition Leader entered the fray, calling on the government to sign off on the international conventions which will qualify Sri Lanka for the EU trade concession.

The irony is, the Foreign Minister is on a similar wavelength to that of the UNP Leader on the issue and sees in Peiris a man who messed up Sri Lanka's case and Bogollagama has now moved on the matter much to the International Trade Minister's ire.

Towards this end, Bogollagama has taken the process over and has negotiated through Sri Lanka's Ambassador to the EU, Ravinath Ariyasinha for a dialogue to take place in Brussels on the GSP Plus.

The Foreign Minister has told Brussels he will personally lead a delegation of technical experts to have a discussion with the EU and explain matters, which tantamounts to agreeing for an investigation of sorts.

GL sidelined

With that, Peiris will be effectively sidelined, and the International Trade Minister who was once described as a 'petulant child' by former President Chandrika Kumaratunga over a dispute with then Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar would have no option but get to a corner and sulk.

Likewise, Public Administration Minister Karu Jayasuriya, deeply upset at the goings on in government had summoned a meeting of the 17 UNP defectors on Wednesday, December 3 and hinted he will return to the grand old party.

Without making a definitive statement on the matter, Jayasuriya had detailed a number of issues over which he was humiliated in government by the President, making it extremely difficult for him to remain in office and maintain his dignity.

Jayasuriya had said the failure to implement the 17th Amendment to the Constitution was particularly painful, in addition to the controversy over the appointment of government agents. He also referred to a press conference the President gave in his presence in the run up to the NCP provincial poll which was extremely embarrassing.

In this context, the call by UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe at Saturday's party convention for the defectors to return to the fold may well be significant.

Thus as the President decides on an election scenario before the Supreme Court ultimatum to activate the Constitutional Council within one month runs out, the elephant may well have something to trumpet in the lead up to a possible election.

 


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