The Political Column17th June 2001
Moves, motion in muddleBy our Political Correspondent
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is in a quandary over the Norwegian-initiated peace process after President
Chandrika Kumaratunga chose to sideline special envoy Erik Solheim on grounds
that he allegedly took a pro-LTTE stance.
In what was seen as a damage-control exercise, the Norwegians after its foreign minister met the President, said that both sides had decided to upgrade the level of Norwegian participation to a cabinet rank.
Diplomats in Colombo point out that initially it was a deputy minister, who handled the Sri Lankan peace process before Mr. Solheim, an MP in Norway came into the scene. After the government changed in Norway, Mr. Solheim was appointed as a Foreign Ministry official, especially in deference to his efforts in the Sri Lankan peace process.
Reports from Norway said that though the Sri Lankan government had sidelined Mr. Solheim, he was still playing an active role in the peace process.
But some political analysts paint a different picture of the Solheim scenario. They claim that the government used the Solheim episode as a ploy to get over a plethora of problems ranging from the motion to impeach the Chief Justice and an impending no-confidence motion against it.
But others say that the government decided to sideline Mr. Solheim in a bid to appease Sinhala hardliners who have been critical of the role played by the Norwegian special envoy.
A few months ago, Sihala Urumaya leader Tilak Karunaratne took umbrage at Mr. Solheim during a parliamentary debate when the latter was in parliament, either watching the proceedings from the gallery or elsewhere in Parliament.
Political sources said that the government believed that the Norwegian ambassador Jon Westborg was amenable and had a more realistic approach to the problem than Mr. Solheim. On the contrary, the LTTE sees in Mr. Solheim a better negotiator. It has expressed dismay over the government's unilateral action to sideline Mr. Solheim.
Now that the government has achieved what it wanted with regard to Mr. Solheim, will it take steps that will propel the peace process?
Political sources say the government is likely to lift the ban on the LTTE along with a ceasefire for a specific period during which it expects talks to proceed on a positive note.
The government is also aware that certain concessions or compromises it makes could cause tremors in the South. To face such challenges, it feels it needs to maintain a constant dialogue with the main opposition UNP and other parties in the Opposition.
It is probably with this in mind that the government floated the idea of forming a national government. The UNP was not averse to the formation of a national government, but it wants to make sure that the move is not a ruse by the government to circumvent a UNP-sponsored no-confidence motion.
A majority of UNP parliamentarians would consider the national government proposal seriously. Tyronne Fernando told this column that they would think of the country's interest first. "When the house is on fire, the political affiliation of the person who helps to douse it is immaterial. The national government move is a welcome move even at this late stage, but the government should bring in all the parties into it," he said.
A reformist UNP stalwart who wished to remain anonymous said a government of national reconciliation was his dream. However, he said the UNP should agree to the move on condition that such a government would take steps to set up four independent commissions to run elections, police, the public service and the judiciary in addition to moves to crack down on the underworld and stem the crime wave.
UNPer Milinda Moragoda has a different view. He thinks that the UNP should go ahead with its no-confidence motion to strengthen its bargaining power at the talks to form a national government. In his opinion, the national government should be so devised to place the UNP and the PA on an equal footing.
Mr. Fernando and Mr. Moragoda agree that the national government should be for a limited period until it accomplishes national objectives, especially the North-East conflict.
In any event, there appears to be a universal acceptance for a national government if it is for the purpose of solving the problems facing the country. But if it is to be formed in a bid to teach minority parties such as the SLMC and the CWC a lesson, then it won't be a national government but a racial government.
Racial overtones to the national government move surfaced in the wake of a public statement made by Minister and SLFP General Secretary S. B. Dissanayake who saw a national government as a means to stop unreasonable demands of minority parties.
There is another view in the UNP with regard to the national government. Some UNPers who are suspicious of the move say it is an attempt by the government to mislead the people.
UNP spokesman Karunasena Kodituwakku told this column that apart from Mr. Dissanayake's speech, there was no formal invitation to the UNP from the government. He also dismissed reports, which claimed that UNP legal expert K. N. Choksy had discussions with the President in this regard.
Mr. Kodituwakku believes the government is desperate and is making all sorts of moves to defuse the no-confidence motion against it.
UNP Assistant Leader Gamini Atukorale opposed the national government move from the very beginning. In his view, a part of the PA should join the UNP to form a government and not vice versa.
Mr. Atukorale is confident that the UNP is in a position to oust the government through the no-confidence motion.
With the main opposition party showing no signs of backing out from its no-confidence move, both the government and the UNP are claiming that each had the required number — the UNP, to defeat the government and the PA, to defeat the motion.
Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake claimed at a public meeting that more and more UNPers would join the PA to carry forward government policies.
Mr. Kodituwakku also said the national government idea would also help the PA to prevent some of its constituent parties such as the SLMC from leaving the party. The SLMC is said to be seriously considering the possibility of joining hands with the UNP during the no-confidence vote as it is apparently displeased with the PA leadership for not fulfilling promises made to it.
There is another dimension to the national government move. It is the JVP factor. If the PA and the UNP form a national government, it will make the JVP the main opposition party in parliament, provided it does not become part of the new government. This will give the party a major boost in its political journey.
A UNP source said that since the JVP parliamentarians were a principled and disciplined lot, they would not rock the boat.
The issue of national government was discussed at length at the UNP Management Committee meeting chaired by party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Mr. Atukorale asked Mr. Wickremesinghe whether he had authorised members to make statements to the media on the national government.
Mr. Wickremesinghe replied in the negative and clarified matters further, by saying there was no move to form a national government with the PA.
Mr. Atukorale then said that if it was the position of the party it should immediately issue a statement stating the party's position.
It was also pointed out that it would not be a wise move to go along with the national government idea, especially at a time they were likely to get the SLMC support.
Minister and SLMC leader Rauf Hakeem had a series of discussions with the UNP through a senior pro-government lawyer who holds a top government position.
Mr. Hakeem feels that his political survival lies only in the UNP, especially after the President reprimanded him at a recent cabinet meeting.
He is well aware of the President's moves and is alarmed over preferential treatment meted out to Minister Ferial Ashraff.
If Mr. Hakeem remains with the PA and helps defeat the no-confidence motion, there is a possibility he will be taken for a ride. A case of being used and discarded.
Mr. Hakeem has been having a tough time with the President since the PA and the SLMC began their bargaining after last year's elections. Firstly, he was not given the Shipping Ministry as promised and he had to fight fiercely to get it. But it only antagonised the President, and he became the ultimate loser when the President attached subjects under the Trade Ministry to other Ministries.
Secondly, the President tactfully ignored a memorandum of understanding drafted by the SLMC for an alliance. The President skillfully directed him to the Prime Minister who rejected it.
Thirdly, the government snubbed him when he gave a 100-day ultimatum for the setting up of the four independent commissions.
For President Kumaratunga, Mr. Hakeem was not a friend of the calibre of his leader, the late M.H.M. Ashraff.
The President and Mr. Ashraff resolved many controversial issues amicably because of the understanding they had from the beginning.
Mr. Hakeem is, of course, a different kettle of fish.
Things reached a boiling point, when Mr. Hakeem made public statements on the Mawanella incident and thereafter refused to participate in a select committee on local government election reforms.
When Mr. Hakeem said it was a decision of the High Command, the President contradicted his position and charged that he himself took the decision before putting the matter before the party's apex body. The President also pointed out that his party had agreed to the idea at the initial stages and she couldn't fathom the reasons behind the SLMC's change of attitude.
While the President is taking a tough line with regard to Mr. Hakeem, she is reportedly promoting Ferial Ashraff to strengthen her position in the SLMC. When Ms. Ashraff was observing the mourning period in confinement after her husband's death, the President visited her and reportedly discussed politics and plans.
Ms. Ashraff knows how helpful the President was to her at the time of her grief. In the circumstances, there is no doubt that Mrs. Ashraff would put her weight behind the President at this critical juncture when the UNP is planning to oust her government.
At present, the SLMC is facing a crisis situation in view of the widening gap between the Hakeem faction and the Ferial faction.
The Ferial faction is reportedly pushing her to stake a claim for the general secretary post of the SLMC because that would strengthen her position in the party, which is led by Mr. Hakeem. Her loyalists say that since Mr. Hakeem is the general secretary of the NUA she leads, it is quite reasonable for her to demand that she be appointed as the general secretary of the SLMC, which Mr. Hakeem leads.
SLMC activists do not want to see a split in the party down the middle because it would not augur well for the Muslim community.
In this backdrop, A.J.M. Muzammil, Colombo district NUA leader and Chairman of the State Trading (General) Company, entered the scene as a troubleshooter.
Mr. Hakeem had reportedly agreed to give Ms. Ashraff greater say in party matters but it is not clear that he would offer her the general secretary post.
Both Mr. Hakeem and Ms. Ashraff realise the importance of the general secretary position in the SLMC which unlike the NUA, has a better recognition among the people. While Mr. Muzammil shuttled between the two leaders, Ms. Ashraff had apparently moved to hold meetings of the NUA without informing General Secretary Hakeem who should be the convenor of any meeting.
Ms. Ashraff said she had informed Mr. Hakeem of her moves. This prompted Mr. Hakeem to call an SLMC politburo meeting to discuss the crucial issue of extending their support to the government.
Meanwhile, President Kumaratunga, too, discussed the Hakeem affair with Prime Minister Wickremanayake and Minister Dissanayake.
The President had apparently expressed her displeasure over the purported statement made by Mr. Dissanayake, causing embarrassment and aggravating the delicate problem of keeping the SLMC in the government.
The impeachment motion against the Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva is another problem that the government is facing right now.
Speaker Anura Bandaranaike is expected this week to give his ruling which would establish which of the two institutions — parliament or the judiciary — is supreme.
Mr. Bandaranaike has consulted many lawyers. Among them was constitutional expert H. L. de Silva. He had been extensively quoted by the petitioners who obtained the injunction from a three judge Supreme Court bench, preventing the Speaker from entertaining the petition.
UNPers are now raising several questions with regard to the way the Speaker had responded to the motion and the interim order.
They ask why the Speaker did not inform party leaders about the Supreme Court petitions which was brought to his notice on Monday, two days prior to them being taken up.
They also raise questions about the Speaker's failure to summon the Attorney General to parliament and ask him why he appeared on behalf of him without his permission.
In the meantime, the government made a hash of the Chief Justice impeachment issue by openly siding with Sarath Silva. At the PA group meeting, some MPs tried to pass a resolution, expressing confidence in the Chief Justice. Some government politicians even put up posters calling on Kataragama deviyo to protect the Chief Justice.
At a Special Parliamentary group meeting of the UNP, the matter of parliamentary supremacy and the Judicial status of the Constitution was discussed at length.
Mr. Wickremesinghe in a long lecture explained to MPs why parliament was superior to the Judiciary.
He quoted extensively from various authorities and said how Cromwell acted to preserve Parliamentary supremacy. Many of the UNPers thought that they were attending a political science lecture by a competent teacher.
The government now wants to avert a possible clash between the legislature and the judiciary.
In a related development, a muslim legal personality who sought a parliamentary slot in the UNP's national list during the last Presidential election had telephoned an Editor of a Sinhala newspaper and had requested him to challenge the Supreme Court order. The lawyer had told him that the court decision was not in order and the editor could challenge it before a fuller bench next week.
Political observers are now trying to find out whether there is some connection between the lawyer's advice to the editor and the Speaker's order which is incidentally put off by a day to Wednesday.
However, the Editor who is also branded as a champion of the free media had smelt a rat over the lawyer's request. He had told the lawyer that they would challenge the order of the Supreme Court after the Speaker's ruling. The government's thinking was that if somebody challenges the earlier order of the Supreme Court before a fuller bench, they would save both institutions from further embarrassment.
The Supreme Court judgment also pushed the UNP on the warpath against the government and unified two camps within the party divided over the motion. A group including UNP lawyers such as K.N. Choksy, Tilak Marapana and Rohitha Bogollagama was dragging its feet on the impeachment motion.
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