The Political Column

24th June 2001

Who's with whom now?

By our Political Correspondent
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With the crossover of SLMC leader Rauf Hakeem and six of his party parliamentarians on Wednesday, the political power balance is delicately placed on a cliffhanger.

The turn of events on Wednesday changed the parliamentary configuration, reducing the government to a minority status. The opposition benches accommodate 115 MPs and the Government side 109. But President Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake are confident that they are still in command. Surely, the President must have envisaged the fallout of her decision to sack Mr. Hakeem from the cabinet. She must have contemplated several fallback options, including possible help from the leftist JVP. 

The JVP did not make its stand known in the wake of the present political crisis. It was to take a decision yesterday on the UNP-sponsored no-confidence motion against the government. It appears that JVP members are having diverse views on the present crisis and the leadership is unable to take a decision.

Some members are of the opinion that they would be sending a wrong signal to their Sinhala majority constituency if they were to back the UNP move to topple the government. They say this is tantamount to indirectly supporting the SLMC, which is unpopular among the majority Sinhalese due to its excessive bargaining with the government. They thus advise the party leadership to take a serious note of the mood of the masses before taking a decision.

However, others say that the much-awaited opportunity has come for the party to push for reforms aimed at democratising the body politic with checks and balances.

The JVP has pledged support to the UNP's proposal to set up independent commissions for elections, the police, the public service and the judiciary. A party survey has indicated that the popularity of the JVP is on the rise. This is largely because of an erosion in the government's support base. Thus the JVP believes that the longer the government continues, the more it stands to gain. 

Though the JVP has said this government should be defeated not once but ten times over, it does not want to see a UNP government instead. 

Mr. Hakeem, the man in the centre of the current political crisis, did not know what was in store for him when he was defending the government in parliament on Monday during the debate over the Consumer Protection Bill.

While he was waging a battle for the government amidst attacks from UNP parliamentarians, President Kumaratunga was apparently studying all repercussions of the move she was about to take.

The President on Tuesday night consulted Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake and ministers Lakshman Kadirgamar, Ronnie de Mel and Anuruddha Ratwatte. She was under the impression that Mr. Hakeem had signed a memorandum of understanding with the UNP. But Mr. Hakeem denied he had signed any MOU while admitting that he had extensive talks with the UNP on various issues ranging from an electoral pact at the next elections to the formation of a stable government.

At the meeting, the President had reportedly told Mr. Wickremanayake and the three ministers that she could not trust Mr. Hakeem. After lengthy discussions, the President reportedly said she would call for an explanation from Mr. Hakeem. While Mr. de Mel advised that a conciliatory method be adopted Mr. Wickremanayake and Gen. Ratwatte took a hardline. Mr. Wickremanayake told the President that Mr. Hakeem should be sacked and that was the end of it.

Soon after this decision was made, the President took steps to remove Mr. Hakeem's special ministerial security from Tuesday midnight. Mr. Hakeem knew what was going to happen in the next hour or so. He summoned a meeting of the SLMC/NUA parliamentary group on Wednesday. While the meeting was in progress at the Parliamentary Complex, the head of the Presidential Security Division Nihal Karunaratne reportedly barged in. He was carrying the letter that Mr. Hakeem's security had been withdrawn.

On hearing this, the two factions in the SLMC/NUA outfit first met separately and then took a decision that they should quit from all governmental positions.

The previous night, the party high command assured Mr.Hakeem that they would back him in whatever decision he took that is whether the SLMC should remain in the government or to leave it. The dismissal of Mr. Hakeem brought a temporary truce in the internal conflict of the SLMC. 

NUA leader Ferial Ashraff, who was only last week clashing openly with Mr. Hakeem, was present when the SLMC held a news conference at the Jawatte mosque soon after a prayer session and a visit to the grave of party founder M. H. M. Ashraff. 

Ms. Ashraff said the removal of Mr. Hakeem from the cabinet was an insult to the SLMC and she was quitting her portfolio in protest. Her stand was appreciated by many SLMC/NUA supporters as a step towards strengthening the hand of Mr. Hakeem. Later in the evening she held a two-hour discussion with the President.

The President told Ms. Ashraff that she would not accept her resignation letter and she would need at least one week to take a decision. But Ms. Ashraff said that even after one week her decision would be the same and she was unable to accept any responsibility as a minister in view of the decision taken by the President to sack Mr. Hakeem. However, Ms. Ashraff said she would not leave the government ranks and would not be a cause for the fall of the government.

On Wednesday evening, when President Kumaratunga participated in the C. V. Gooneratne memorial lecture at the BMICH, she had an opportunity to talk to Mr. Hakeem. She asked him how he was feeling. 

Mr. Hakeem replied, "I am relieved ". 

The President then asked, "Have you crossed over?" 

Mr. Hakeem said "yes" and referred to his speech in parliament just before the crossover.

In Parliament on Wednesday, soon after his removal Mr. Hakeem walked to the chamber with UNP Parliamentarian Rohitha Bogollagama.

On the way he met Ministers Dinesh Gunawardene and Mahinda Rajapakse.

Sporting a broad smile Mr. Hakeem told them, "I had no option but to take this course of action." Then he entered the chamber with the crossover in his mind. He did so after informing the Deputy Speaker who was in the chair amid applause from UNP MPs.

UNP parliamentarian Mahinda Samarasinghe suggested to UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to invite Mr. Hakeem to have tea with him. As they entered the MPs' canteen, Mr. Samarasinghe suggested that they should occupy a long table.

Mr. Wickremesinghe smilingly agreed. The long table has some significance. It is where UNP reformists gathered for lunch and for discussions during the crisis in the party. The trio was then joined by Alick Aluvihare and W.J.M. Lokubandara. When they were having tea and a cordial discussion about the current developments, a Parliamentary employee delivered a registered letter to Mr. Hakeem. He accepted the letter but did not open it and put it in his coat pocket. It was the official dismissal letter with the presidential seal. At this stage, Mr. Wickremesinghe jokingly said: "One of us could have signed it and taken it." 

Mr. Hakeem told Mr. Wickremesinghe not to drag him into the "no-confidence affair". 

"I will certainly put my signature for the opposition motion against Minister Mahipala Herath. I have made a public statement to this effect," Mr. Hakeem said.

On Thursday, Mr. Hakeem told this column that the President should look beyond party interests and form a government of national reconciliation to solve the burning problems. 

"The President should realise that she has no numbers to carry on with a stable government. She should realise that she may have to work even with a UNP led government. Sitting in the Opposition does not mean that we are there to oppose her all the time. We will decide whether to support the government on an issue-by-issue basis as our immediate objective is not to bring down the Kumaratunga administration," he said.

Mr. Hakeem recalled how he supported the PA to form a government last year in spite of his leader Ashraff's last wish that the SLMC should not go along with the PA. He expressed similar sentiments during his talks with the UNP leaders. "Now I have been punished for helping the PA to form a government," he said.

Mr. Hakeem expressed his anxiety over the role played by Ferial Ashraff. He said though he was appreciative of the step taken by Mr. Ashraff to quit her portfolio, there were doubts about her remaining in the PA fold. 

"She has to fall in line with the party whip. There cannot be any excuses for anybody violating this," he said. 

On his relations with the PA, Mr. Hakeem said the strategy of the PA in dealing with the SLMC was that it entertained the SLMC request and then would get a section of the PA to oppose it. 

"The President's decision to remove me was based on rumours. Today the PA is reduced to a minority government. She has paid the price for it," Mr. Hakeem said.

On Wednesday evening, the SLMC and the UNP entered into a Memorandum of Understanding prepared by a Muslim lawyer and vetted by UNP's legal expert K. N. Choksy.

The outline of the MOU is that the UNP and SLMC would form a broad alliance to further political matters of a national nature to settle the ethnic problem in the country. The two parties will also act together in parliament as a coalition to achieve this objective.

The SLMC, however, will be able to function as an independent unit in parliament. It will come under the UNP whip, only in respect of matters of national importance. 

The SLMC-UNP pow wow began well before this week's drama. It was facilitated by Mahinda Samarasinghe at whose residence the two party leaders met. Mr. Wickremesinghe authorised Mr. Samarasinghe to get Karunasena Kodituwakku involved in the discussions. Leaders of the two parties had several rounds of discussion and the crucial meeting was held at the 5th Lane residence of Mr. Wickremesinghe with the talks going on for about three hours. This meeting was attended by UNP Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya, Assistant leader Gamini Atukorale and party spokesman Karunasena Kodituwakku.

Mr. Samarasinghe was asked to brief the participants on the progress the talks had made so far.

Besides Mr. Samarasinghe, others who contributed towards making the MOU a reality were Milinda Moragoda and M. M. Mahroof.

The UNP, meanwhile, was anxious to know the stand taken by the JVP. Some UNPers felt that the JVP was now dragging its feet to gain political mileage. 

On Thursday, a JVP delegation met Mr. Wickremesinghe. The JVPers asked him whether the no-confidence motion could be deferred until a decision was taken by the Central Committee which was to meet yesterday.

The UNP also sent feelers to the CWC and certain government members. Upcountry People's Front leader P. Chandrasekeran and UNP's S. Sellasamy, who was once the CWC general secretary, are having talks with CWC. This column also learns UNP big wigs such as Mr. Atukorale are also talking to the CWC. 

The UNP expects the JVP to abstain from voting, if it does not want to vote in favour of the no-faith motion. One UNPer told this column that the SLMC cross over had opened the floodgates and some government MPs had called the party headquarters, expressing their willingness to join the UNP. 

Meanwhile, in Parliament, Minister G. L. Peiris spoke on the importance of forming a national government as a means to solve the country's problems.

Mr. Hakeem also held similar views. He told this column that a government of national reconciliation should consist of almost all the parties and the JVP also should have a stake in it. He, however, said he was against a nationalist government as proposed by some PA politicians.

The President, in the meantime, sprang into action, convening a group meting of the government Parliamentarians. She explained at length the circumstances that led to the dismissal of Mr. Hakeem.

She claimed Mr. Hakeem had struck a deal with the UNP, thereby violating the collective responsibility as a member of the cabinet. She told the MPs to be in Colombo as the next few days would be crucial.

Some MPs then told the President she must ask several ministers and MPs who were overseas to return immediately. Accordingly, steps have been taken to recall Ministers S. B. Dissanayake and Mangala Samaraweera. Minister Dissanayake left the country on Wednesday morning for Malaysia on a private trip. 

Relations between President Kumaratunga and Mr. Dissanayake appear to be strained. Political analysts ask as to whether there was a link between this strained relationship and a letter from the President to the Elections Commissioner, declaring herself as the president of the SLFP and the leader of the People's Alliance.

They say there could be a subtle message to Mr. Dissanayake in the letter that her views also had to be sought in party affairs.

It is learnt that Ms. Ashraff has been involved in a similar exercise as far as the National Unity Alliance is concerned. 

It was no secret in political circles that the PA leadership was backing NUA leader Ms. Ashraff and trying to divide the SLMC. 

Mr. Hakeem, who is holding the powerful post of general secretary in the SLMC, says NUA is only the outer layer of the house of SLMC and not the house itself.

The internal squabbles in the party still continue but Mr. Hakeem's popularity among the Muslim community has risen to an all-time high following his removal from the cabinet.

In firing Mr. Hakeem, the government probably would have thought that others in the SLMC could be tamed. But the government plan has backfired. 

Insiders say a sharp crack is visible in the government ranks and the President is making a relentless effort to hold the government together.

They said that at least twenty PA members including some ministers are of the view that there should be a complete departure from the present political system to form a government of national reconciliation. That is the only way to solve the country's pressing problems.

The subject of government of national reconciliation surfaced even at Thursday's cabinet meeting. President Kumaratunga was assuring the cabinet that she would not allow the government to fall. She said there were moves to get the support of some UNPers and the JVP.

This prompted Mahinda Rajapakse to remind her that she had been talking in similar vein for the past several weeks, but little or no action had been taken to prevent the government from collapsing. He suggested that a government of national reconciliation should be formed if the PA to avoid humiliation. But his suggestion did not find favour with the PA leadership.

Meanwhile,on Friday, the President met Mr. Wickremesinghe to discuss matters relating to the present crisis. The Information Department projected the talks as an attempt to resume bipartisanship aimed at peace. But behind the cover of bipartisanship, the two leaders reportedly discussed the present political crisis. The President had reportedly sought the UNP's help to pass the monthly extension of emergency. The UNP leader said his party had always acted in the interest of the nation. 

The President then brought up the question of several financial bills lined up in parliament for discussion. If a financial bill is defeated, the ministry concerned cannot function and it could even lead to the dissolution of parliament. 

The UNP leader replied tongue in cheek that they would not oppose bills on Samurdhi. Why Samurdhi, the President reportedly asked.

The opposition leader skirted the question and said the UNP would take decisions on the merits of the bills concerned. 

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