The Political Column

19th August 2001

The importance of being SB

By our Political Correspondent
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The political crisis engulfing the country has deepened over the weekend as the two major political parties-the PA and the UNP-have failed to arrive at an understanding to form a government of national reconciliation.

The two parties seem to pay little attention to the SOS call sent by civic groups, the clergy, businessmen and professionals, warning of a major economic disaster ahead.

Talks between the two parties had bogged down in premiership stake. The main opposition UNP's demand that it be offered the premiership was in no way acceptable to the PA, which said that premiership should be held by the PA since it was the largest party in parliament. As a compromise, the PA offered the deputy premiership to the UNP a post that has no official status or power under the constitution. 

The UNP obviously turned down the offer. The UNP had also demanded that the important portfolios such as finance and internal security, which the UNP believed was a police matter under the Home Ministry, should come its way, but it was willing to concede the defence portfolio to the President. This was not palatable to the PA and it was how another phase of talks to solve the S.B. Dissanayakepolitical crisis ended.

The government tried to portray the present political problem as a constitutional crisis. But many analysts say it was essentially a political crisis stemming from a numbers game in parliament.

The equation is that the PA has 109 seats in parliament while the UNP-SLMC-TULF-TELO-ACTC -SU has 105 and the JVP, which acts independently, has 10. Thus for the government to survive the no-confidence motion, it only needs to persuade the JVP to abstain from voting. But given the crisis within the PA, a question arises as to whether the government has its 109 seats intact. 

The question is being asked in the backdrop of reports that Minister and SLFP General Secretary S. B. Dissanayake commands a group of dissident PA parliamentarians and he is threatening to crossover to the opposition. 

It is no secret any more that Mr. Dissanayake has been in touch with UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. It is this development, some analysts say, forced President Kumaratunga to prorogue parliament for two months, during which attempts were made to bring Mr. Dissanayake back to the fold.

Several emissaries, including Presidential Secretary Kusumsiri Balapatabendi, were sent but Mr. Dissanayake was unrelenting. 

If Mr. Dissanayake crosses over along with the dissident group the strength of which ranges from 9 to 20 MPs including two ministers, according to estimates the PA's numbers game will go haywire. But this possibility remains uncertain until he actually does it, as he is not a person to leave the SLFP to which he is committed to.

The UNPers also discussed the Dissanayake factor. Their main problem is how to accommodate Mr. Dissanayake as they had accused him of various elections malpractices. Mr. Dissanayake carried the Nuwara Eliya district which was a UNP bastion. The UNP alleged it was due to intimidation, vote rigging and violations of election laws, that the PA won the district.

A UNPer told this column that if it benefited the party, the past should be forgotten. True to the maxim 'politics makes strange bed fellows,' Mr. Dissanayake's critics in the UNP like assistant leader Gamini Atukorale are now banking on him in their pursuit of governmental power.

If Mr. Dissanayake crosses over, what would be the political scenario? 

Can he remain as the General Secretary of the SLFP and claim to be a genuine SLFPer, or will President Kumaratunga sack him from the party? But his crossover may not end the political crisis. It may continue in a different form. 

To get over this crisis, the only way out suggested by some political experts is to form a government of national reconciliation. There are differences to be ironed out and one could see that the UNP's claim for premiership is reasonable. But the UNP also should make some concessions. It must not insist that the Finance portfolio should be given to it. In addition, both sides should display enough sincerity for an open discussion.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, who is reluctant to talk to the UNP leader after his secret talks with the President on July 4, opened a line of negotiations with UNP stalwart Rukman Senanayake.

The Prime Minister is said to be maintaining the contacts with the UNP through Mano Ginige, a top official at the Prime Minister's Office. On a parallel plain, Ministers Lakshman Kadirgamar, Anuruddha Ratwatte and Mangala Samaraweera are holding discussions with Tyronne Fernando, Mahinda Samarasinghe and Rohitha Bogollagama. 

The UNP trio are not prepared to compromise the premiership demand. This stance was also emphasised by Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya when Mr. Ginige met him. Mr. Atukorale and a few others in the UNP are insisting that the party should go for a government of national reconciliation only if all its conditions are met.

Some political analysts point out that it is the government that is ailing and not the opposition which could remain in this position until the next elections. But there appears to be an attitude problem when it comes to a PA-UNP power-sharing arrangement.

President Kumaratunga told the business community last week that it was much easier for her to convince the JVP an many matters than the UNP. She said the JVP was cooperative but the UNP was not, though she had 36 rounds of talks with the UNP.

The JVP has extended conditional support to the President in exchange for the cancellation of the referendum, resummoning of Parliament, setting up of independent commissions and slashing of unnecessary public expenditure starting with the reduction of the cabinet to 20 members. 

However, some ministers are opposing the JVP demands and questioning the wisdom of depending on a small party such as the JVP. They ask how could they work with a Marxist party, claiming such an alliance will erode investor confidence.

Minister Dissanayake is also of the view that the present crisis could be tackled more effectively if the two major parties get together.

Addressing a meeting of Samurdhi Animators in Matale recently, the minister said that the government was submerged in water upto its nose and the referendum or a revolutionary constitution would not rescue it. 

On the contrary, he said that the government should adopt the Premadasa approach that the then President successfully manipulated when he faced an impeachment motion. 

"We all including the President are responsible for the present political crisis. But it is still not too late for us to get over it, if we act swiftly and adopt the Premadasa approach," he said.

Meanwhile, at a recent UNP inner circle meeting attended by party leader Wickremesinghe, Mr. Jayasuriya, Mr. Atukorale, Rukman Senanayake and a few others, the government offer to the UNP was taken up. There, Mr. Senanayake said the government had offered 12 portfolios along with the post of deputy premiership. 

Mr. Wickremesinghe said that at talks with Mr. Jayasuriya and the Tyronne Fernando team, the government side had conceded the premiership to the UNP. 

Mr. Senanayake then told the UNP leader that in that case the party should pursue the line that would ensure premiership to the UNP and the matter ended there.

But again on Saturday, Mr. Senanayake received a call from Mr. Wickremesinghe asking him to meet him urgently at his Cambridge Place office. There, Mr. Wickremesinghe told Mr. Senanayake to pursue the matter again with the government in a bid to form a government of national reconciliation. 

On this occasion it was the UNP that initiated talks with the government. Mr. Senanayake agreed but only on one assurance that the party leader would inform the Parliamentary group and the Working Committee that Mr. Senanayake was conducting talks with the government with the knowledge and authorisation of the party.

Mr. Wickremesinghe also had a one-to-one discussion with Kalutara District parliamentarian Sarath Ranawaka who first brought this proposal to Mr. Senanayake. Mr. Ranawaka, a former SLFP member, was recently removed from the post of Bulathsinhala organiser. He maintains a good rapport with Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake and it was he who brought the initial message of the Prime Minister to Mr. Senanayake.

At this meeting, the UNP leader was surprised to know that Mr. Ranawaka had been removed from his organiser post. Thereafter, they discussed the actual subject matter of initiating fresh moves with the government.

Mr. Ranawaka wanted to keep himself out of the picture, for he feared those UNP frontliners who initiated his removal would react angrily towards him and question his role in the negotiations.

Several senior UNPers, meanwhile, feel that Mr. Wickremesinghe has missed the opportunity of becoming the Prime Minister in July due to certain actions by his own partymen.

July 7 was the crucial day when Prime Minister Wickremanayake decided to step down to pave the way for Mr. Wickremesinghe, but now UNP insiders say it was only a drama enacted by Mr. Wickremanayake to consolidate his position.

On that Friday (July 07), Minister Sarath Amunugama was in conversation with some of his UNP friends in the Parliament library when Kurunegala district MP Gamini Jayawickrema Perera barged in. He joined the conversation and wanted to know what was going on in the political scene.

"Why don't you just peep into the Prime Minister's office to see for yourself," Dr. Amunugama asked. Although it was against convention the more inquisitive Jayawickrema Perera was keen to know the latest proceedings. Accordingly, he did what Dr. Amunugama told him to do and found to his surprise that Mr. Wickremesinghe having talks with Mr. Wickremanayake and Minister G. L. Peiris.

By lunch time, the discussion came to an end and the matters were finalised. Minister Peiris who went to the MPs' canteen was seen seated with Mr. Senanayake, Sajith Premadasa and Jayawickrema Perera.

The subject of conversation was a government of national reconciliation. The next question was who would be the Prime Minister.

Mr. Jayawickrema Perera posed this question with much eagerness. "It is Ranil Wickremesinghe" was Minister Peiris' reply. "The Prime Minister will resign at 4.30 p.m. today. It was all finalised," he said. But before Prof. Peiris could proceed any further, he received a call from the Prime Minister to which he responded immediately.

The Prime Minister had apparently rescinded the plan of forming a government of national reconciliation because the UNP had gone ahead with its motion of no-confidence against the government.

"The Prime Minister is very angry and try to contact him," Minister Peiris told UNP leader Mr. Wickremesinghe. But the Prime Minister refused to talk to him.

Thereafter the only alternative for Mr. Wickremesinghe was to talk to Speaker Anura Bandaranaike which he did with his proposal to form a government of national reconciliation.

Speaker Bandaranaike met President Kumaratunga and eventually managed to convince the President. The President agreed to talk to the Prime Minister but the response was not favourable to the UNP. Soon the government resorted to the prorogation of Parliament a move that infuriated the UNP and the opposition.

UNP insiders think that the Prime Minister was not sincere and his offer to step down was just a drama enacted to either to cling on to his position or to distract the UNP which was armed with the no-faith motion. But a handful of UNPers think the Prime Minister was genuine and it was a missed opportunity for the UNP.

It was only after this episode that Mr. Senanayake entered into negotiations with the Prime Minister with the blessings of the UNP leader.

Mr. Senanayake briefed Mr. Wickremesinghe of the developments from time to time.

He also had three rounds of talks with Mr. Atukorale on the matter and subsequently handed over the MOU to be endorsed by the leadership.

In the present political context, the UNP, too, is fearing some cross-overs to the government ranks.

Mr. Atukorale came out strongly against such members last week at a meeting the UNP hierarchy had with UNP councillors of the Western Province to discuss the August 23 Janabala Meheyuma.

Mr. Atukorale challenged those people who wanted to join the government to do it now. He is not the only UNPer who holds this view. Rajitha Senaratne is also a strong advocate of this.

Thus it is evident, the UNP is caught among various views.

While some back a move to join hands with the S. B. Dissanayake group and even with the JVP, others oppose any deal with them.

The JVP killed 6,000 UNPers in the 1988-89 terror period while Mr. Dissanayake was allegedly instrumental in denying a UNP victory at the last general elections, those in the go-it-alone group point out.

Mr. Dissanayake now stands between the PA and UNP, creating bigger problems for the PA and President Kumaratunga.

The President is unable to resummon parliament due to the standoff with Mr. Dissanayake who is believed to be backed by a number of ministers.

Minister Peiris has also come under close scrutiny by the Presidential Security Division on suspicion that he has something to do with the Dissanayake group.

It is said that the deadlock in the talks between the PA and UNP is over the UNP insistence that Mr. Dissanayake and his group should be included in the joint cabinet.

Let alone a place in a new cabinet, some of the ministers' places are not safe even in the present cabinet with the President apparently not happy over their activities.

The PA has apparently said that if the UNP wants the Dissanayake group, it could have them. 

But with no signs of the row between the President and Minister Dissanayake abating, the UNP is more inclined towards an alliance with the Dissanayake group than a national government idea.

"It is going to be a stalemate position if both major parties do not agree on a compromise and this also reveals the UNP's ulterior motive," one PA senior minister told this column. 

The fear that the PA entertains is that Mr. Wickremesinghe will work his way to the top once he becomes the Prime Minister of a government of national reconciliation.

At a UNP group meeting on Thursday, Mr. Wickremesinghe said it was a great achievement that all opposition parties had come together on a common platform with the need to resummon parliament urgently. The UNP also passed five resolutions drafted by a committee headed by John Amaratunga. It also called on the government to resummon parliament and demanded a parliamentary select committee to probe the Katunayake catastrophe. 

The UNP also warned of setting up of a parallel parliament if the President failed to re-open parliament soon. "I am absolutely sure the supremacy is with us. We have the majority in parliament and we will work according to our own agenda," the UNP leader said.

Mr. Wickremesinghe also emphasised that the UNP was a united party and it was like a vehicle with one chauffeur in full control.

It is a clear warning to others that he will not leave room for any splinter group or any group within the party. All the members endorsed his view with applause when one UNPer said "we are all loyal to you."

When Rajitha Senaratne criticised groups within the UNP for having discussions with various ministers and the Prime Minister of the PA government, Rukman Senanayake put across his standpoint. Mr. Senanayake said he had talks with the approval and knowledge of UNP leader Wickremesinghe and added that he did not have any personal interest in getting into the government. 

He snapped back at Dr. Senaratne saying "I don't have blood that betrays. If I want to be in the government, it is not necessary for me to tell anybody and talk for a long time. I would have done it long ago. But my convictions are with the party," he said.

Thereafter some UNP activists who were against forming a government with the PA prevented Dr. Senaratne from speaking against Mr. Senanayake while party seniors applauded Mr. Senanayake for the stand he had taken when others made futile attempts to have snipes at him.

While politicians talk about the political crisis, there is little effort to tackle the economic crisis that is threatening to cause havoc. As a result of the LTTE's July 24 attack on the international airport, the tourist industry is falling apart with many hotels facing closure and employees losing jobs. The shipping industry is in absolute crisis with big time shippers having been asked to pay a war risk insurance premium if they call at Sri Lankan ports. 

Most of the Colombo bound consignments have ended up either in Aden, Singapore, Dubai or elsewhere. With ships avoiding Colombo, a food crisis is imminent, unless the government takes immediate measures to resolve the present crisis by negotiating with insurers in London and convince them that there is no war risk at the Port of Colombo.

Minister Ronnie de Mel is already in London but everybody is pessimistic about his mission. 

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