The Political Column29th October 2000
Call for consensus politics gathers momentumBy our Political Correspondent
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towards consensus politics emerged in the political horizon after the people
gave their final verdict at the recently concluded general elections with
no single party getting an absolute majority to run a government on its
The PA, which emerged as the party with the largest number of seats, could form a coalition with the help of the EPDP and the NUA only after agreeing to the demands of these parties. This indicates that the polls outcome has given minority parties a greater bargaining power as seen in the case of the NUA which was accused of holding the PA for a ransom with its ten plus seats.
The main Opposition UNP says this situation would not have arisen if the elections were free and fair. It says the election results did not reflect the true will of the people in five districts - Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, Anuradhapura, Kegalle and Kurunegala. Had a fair poll been conducted in these areas - some of which were considered to be UNP bastions - the UNP could have emerged winner with an absolute majority to form the government.
But now that the final results have been made a fait accompli, the focus has been turned to nation building through consensus politics with religious prelates too urging the two main parties - the PA and the UNP - to work together
In an open letter addressed to the leaders of this country, Colombo's Archbishop Rt. Revd. Dr. Nicholas Marcus Fernando says a golden opportunity has arisen for national unity and progress in the wake of the General Elections 2000. The Archbishop also says:
"Providence has provided us with just the right climate, the right conditions to reflect judiciously and make decisions wisely for the future. Far-reaching decisions for change should be taken without delay before political rivalry becomes aggravated once again. The eve of an election is not the time for change. Now is the time for saner thinking. That time is, however, limited.
"As a church that has made party politics taboo for its clergy, as a church that has adherents in its fold that belongs to both major national communities in this country, it can propose non-partisan ideas in the interest of the whole nation. Since no major party has won a decisive victory, the time has come for the two major parties to bury the hatchet and to get together in the interest of the whole country rather than of their own parties.
"However, a coalition of the two major parties alone is not what is needed to resolve the country's problems. Such a coalition could easily forget or ignore the major issues of ethnic people. Thus, it would be another big mistake if we make opportunistic decisions. All that has so far been attempted to bring about ethnic and national unity through justice in a new Constitution will be lost if we follow that path.
"What we should not forget even for a moment is that it is not a coalition of the two major parties that is going to solve the country's problems, but a new system of government that would always be a grand coalition of all parties after every election according to the votes won from the people."
The Archbishop's call for government of unity comes at a time when the country was put to shame by a horrendous act of violence at Bindunuwewa in Bandarawela. About 30 LTTE suspects who were being rehabilitated in the Bindunuwewa were hacked and burnt to death by a mob in an act that had undone 17 years of good record of ethnic relations.
The incident has jolted the two major parties, reminding them that urgent steps should be taken to resolve the ethnic conflict. The incident, reminiscent of the 1983 Welikada prison riots in which 53 Tamil prisoners were killed by other inmates, also shows that communal hatred still has its place in the Sri Lankan body politic.
Similar attacks had taken place in Boossa, too. The government, which must take the responsibility for the security lapse, has acted fast and launched investigations. But what is required is that it should act on the findings of these investigations and ensure that such incidents would not recur.
This incident, no doubt, has given worldwide publicity to the Tamil cause and helped the LTTE to justify its struggle for a separate homeland for Tamils.
The entry of the EPDP into the government has, to some extent, helped mute world condemnation. Defending the government, EPDP leader Douglas Devananda said the government was genuinely interested in putting an end to this kind of horrendous acts. Suggesting there was no government involvement in the incident, Mr. Devananda said the attack had been meticulously planned and it was similar to the 1983 Welikada prison riots.
Amidst talks of and calls for consensus politics, the UNP's initiative to sign a memorandum of understanding for a working arrangement with the government for at least two years was partially shot down by its working committee on Monday.
Instead of a memorandum of understanding, the UNP has come out with a common programme for all political parties to create a new political culture. The letter outlining the common programme was sent to other parties for their endorsement. It said:
"The UNP is sensitive to the fact that the people of Sri Lanka have taken a revulsion to political parties which play parochial and opportunistic politics in the face of serious security, political and economic crises facing the country. Given this backdrop, the UNP in the national interest, wishes to put forward a common programme which seeks to meet the hopes and aspirations of Sri Lankans for a just, equitable and democratic society and as a consequence a better future for her youth."
The working committee has authorised UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to take steps to build a consensus for the enactment of necessary legislation to make the programme a reality, and to ensure the implementation of these laws after discussing with political parties in parliament.
The UNP proposes the setting up of independent commissions for elections, Police, Public Service and the judiciary to create a better environment and a better society. It also proposes that all members of parliament should be called upon to sign an anti-corruption pact. It also calls for an end to the practice of issuing liquor permits on the recommendation of MPs.
The UNP also urges amendments to election laws in line with the requirements of modern society.
The party expressing concern over the unauthorised use of weapons in the country, says the only organisations entitled to carry arms should be the police and the armed forces. Licence issued to any other person to carry arms should be according to strict legal criteria.
It also calls for a legal and institutional framework for a free media culture. and a national initiative to end armed conflicts, including terrorism through a political solution involving all parties. It says the war should be ended while safeguarding the territorial integrity of the country.
The UNP also proposes that legislation should be enacted to ensure that all poverty alleviation and development programmes including Samurdhi are implemented in a de-politicised manner.
The party says it expects the government to implement these proposals before December 31 if its support is required for future endeavours.
Some party insiders say the leadership is not in favour of the proposal to enter into a working arrangement with the government. They say initial talks aimed at such a move were started to please those party members who advocate some sort of consensus with the government.
"Nobody is genuinely interested in these things," one insider told this column.
Commenting on the recent changes in the party structure, he said they were initiated as a safeguard against a revolt in the party.
In far-reaching structural changes, UNP Chairman Karu Jayasuriya was elevated to the new post of Deputy Leader while General Secretary Gamini Atukorale was appointed as assistant leader. It is said that the position of assistant leader has not been recognised by the UNP constitution, though it allows the working committee to create positions.
Some UNPers wonder as to what responsibilities Mr. Atukorale's new post would carry.
They also point out a problem in translation because the two posts, deputy leader and assistant leader, appear similar. Many mistranslate the words deputy leader, a post held by Mr. Jayasuriya, as 'Upanayake' instead of 'Sahakaranayaka.'
Mr. Atukorale, meanwhile, is facing some difficulties for allegedly getting involved in certain matters connected with election violence. He has been released on bail by the Ratnapura Magistrate and two days later another warrant was issued for his arrest. Mr. Atukorale suspects that his opponents are working overtime to discredit him and the party.
At the UNP working committee meeting on Monday, frontliner Tyronne Fernando briefed the members on the discussions he had with Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake to reach an understanding with the government for a working arrangement. Though some party stalwarts opposed the move, it later gathered momentum, as a parallel move, after the working committee set the December 31 deadline for the implementation of the proposals.
The deadline was apparently set, keeping in mind the local government elections scheduled for January.
Though Mr. Fernando later handed over the UNP's suggestions to the Prime Minister, the party has not received any response from the government.
In the meantime, working committee member Velayudan, who represented the plantations sector, resigned from the membership, in protest against the party's failure to accommodate him on the national list.
But it appears that the resignation has not shaken the party or created any kind of impact.
With the elevation of Mr. Jayasuriya and Mr. Atukorale to their new positions, there is much lobbying for the posts of chairman and general secretary.
It is likely that Charitha Ratwatte will be made the party chairman while the party is in search for a full time general secretary to re-organise the party.
Hemasiri Fernando's name has been mentioned but insiders say that he is not a member of the UNP. Mr. Fernando was the secretary to Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike and chairman of the Sri Lanka Telecom. A businessman who was involved in tourism and many other trades, he fell out with the government after five years of good relationship.
It is after Charitha Ratwatte refused to accept the full time post as secretary that the UNP considered Hemasiri Fernando's name.
Be that as it may, the joint forum of the Chamber of Commerce last week urged both the ruling PA and the UNP to have a bi-partisan approach to promote national unity and reconstruction.
The joint forum sent an action plan, containing several proposals, to President Chandrika Kumaratunga.
The proposals, it is learnt, deal with economic issues and give a specific timeframe to achieve certain targets. The forum also recommended infrastructure development, new labour laws and a policy on human resources and pension reforms. It has also urged the government that the council of ministers should meet the representatives of the chambers to discuss key issues of a macro-nature. The forum also says it is keen to see that the two main parties get together on a common programme to improve conditions in the country.
During the elections, Sri Lankan electors had the opportunity to witness the scramble for preferences. It is no more a rare scene in Sri Lanka politics. Now it has become part and parcel of Sri Lankan lives because in January people can witness its re-enactment when the local government elections are held.
Soon after the elections, senior politicians demanded ministries at their whims and fancies. Some even threatened to commit suicide if they were not given the portfolios they wanted. But President Kumaratunga was firm. She was working till 3 in the morning last Thursday allocating ministries for the politicians. She chose 44 among the aspirants and invited them to the Presidential Palace for the oath taking ceremony.
But when they received their respective papers, some were happy while others were disappointed. The President wanted to appoint Sarath Amunugama as Minister of Agriculture, but D. M. Jayaratne insisted that the portfolio should be given to him. He walked up to the window of the two-storied Presidential Palace, driving fear into others that he would jump out of the window. But finally he got what he wanted and Dr. Amunugama was given the subject assigned to Mr. Jayaratne.
S.B. Dissanayake, A.H.M. Fowzie, Nimal Siripala de Silva, Mahinda Rajapakse and Dinesh Gunawardena were also among the disappointed lot.
Nimal Siripala de Silva did not want Post and Telecommunication while Dinesh Gunawardena though he negotiated for Agriculture was given Transport which he thought was given to him to create trouble for him. Mahinda Rajapakse found to his amazement that the subject dealing with fisheries housing schemes had been removed from his ministry and annexed to the social services ministry of Milroy Fernando. S.B. Dissanayake was, however, later assigned with more subjects - parliamentary affairs, rural development and development of up-country areas - after he showed discontent over what he was given.
The President thereafter moved to prune the trade ministry, taking off food and assigned it to Reggie Ranatunga. His shipping portfolio was annexed to Rauf Hakeem after he tried to walk out of the swearing in ceremony.
The President is now in the process of allocating a ministry to former Sabaragamuwa Chief Minister Athauda Seneviratne who obtained the highest number of preference votes in the Sabaragamuwa province.
It has also been reported that Badulla's Dilan Perera, who was a deputy minister during 1994-2000, is also demanding a portfolio.
In view of the size of the cabinet, the President has now decided to reduce the deputy ministers to three - a move which could spark off another clash. The appointment of the ministers and the subsequent scramble to grab power amply demonstrated that Sri Lankan politicians are serving their own interests than the interests of the country.
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