The Political Column

26th August 2001

Here comes the UNP

By our Political Correspondent
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It is a question of political survival for President Chandrika Kumaratunga and her government. The President cannot deny that her party has lost its parliamentary majority. Her attempts at salvaging a sinking ship have proved futile so far with even her ministers unable to help her.

In this desperate situation, she finds a scapegoat in the 1978 Constitution. The President and the PA leadership say it is because of the J. R. Jayewardene constitution that they were unable to implement many of their programmes, including the devolution of power to solve the ethnic crisis.

But those who blame the constitution must know that they have been elected under the provisions of the constitution and they are duty bound to uphold the constitution. It is not the constitution that is the ill of everything but it is the political manoeuvres of politicians that have triggered the present crisis.

Britain has no written constitution. It has a constitution based on traditions, conventions and rulings of superior courts. Yet that country has never felt the need to bring in a new written constitution. Here, in Sri Lanka, we are still experimenting with constitution-making. The present constitution is the third after the country received independence. What is required is not a new constitution but amendments to it to facilitate greater devolution of power and enhance the scope of fundamental rights and democracy. Even UNPers who were instrumental in bringing in the 1978 constitution agree with this. They now demand a French model of government under the present constitution ó a system where "we (UNP) should perform and you should be mere onlookers."

One would wonder whether it is the objective of the 1978 constitution where the executive president is vested with enormous power. 

Constitutional changes should come with checks and balances. The immediate need of the hour is not the abolition of the executive presidency or transferring its powers to an executive prime minister, but bringing in more checks and balances and enhancing democracy and the rule of law.

To abolish the executive presidency or not is a different question altogether. The executive system has its positive sides as well. For instance, minorities who believe there is greater recognition for them under the presidential system favour it.

Be that as it may, the political crisis engulfing the country is worsening day by day. There appears to be a domino effect in the economic collapse, which was triggered off by the July 24 attack on the airport by the LTTE. Government information outfits have warned that the LTTE is planning more attacks on economic installations. This warning was issued to the UNP ahead of its anti-government demonstrations in Colombo on Thursday. But the government tells a different story to the outside world, claiming that Colombo was safe.

The question many ask is whether the government has a solution to the present economic crisis? Putting the economy back on the right track is more important than facing the LTTE threat, some analysts say. They say the government must get together with the UNP and bring about political stability in the south while facing the LTTE threat and then go for talks with the LTTE to find a solution to the north-east problem.

This cannot be achieved through confrontational and acrimonious politics or by vituperative utterances against the main opposition. The onus is not only on the government. Even the UNP should act in the larger interest of the nation and respond to the government's latest overture.

This is the first invitation to the UNP after Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake called off talks with Opposition UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe in the wake of a no-confidence motion being tabled in parliament.

The Prime Minister wrote to the opposition leader on Tuesday outlining the basic programmes and policies of the proposed national government and requested him to suggest an early date for a meeting.

Mr. Wickremesinghe a few days ago told the powerful forum of business leaders that he was not interested in a government of national reconciliation since the President was not keen in forming such a government with the UNP. He said he saw President Kumaratunga more as a problem than a solution to the current crisis.

The Prime Minister's letter sent on Tuesday was given full publicity in the state media, indicating that it had the fullest backing of the President. 

The UNP informed other opposition party leaders on the government's latest initiative. 

On Tuesday at the UNP's political affairs committee meeting, Mahinda Samarasinghe asked whether President Kumaratunga had written to the UNP, inviting it for talks to form a government of national reconciliation.

Mr. Samarasinghe said the JVP's Wimal Weerawansa believed that the government was moving on that direction.

Mr. Wickremesinghe told Mr. Samarasinghe that the letter was not from Ms. Kumaratunga, but from Prime Minister Wickremanayake.

By this time, the JVP too was expecting a letter from the President on the proposals it made during its talks with the government on August 10.

JVP General Secretary Tilvin Silva in a letter to the President reminded her of the undertaking given by the government to the JVP.

With the latest government move, the JVP could feel that the UNP had outfoxed it. 

Neither was the UNP satisfied with the government's move. The letter itself came from the Prime Minister and not from the President. But the UNP political committee members believed the letter was initiated on the instructions of the President.

Mr. Wickremesinghe was of the opinion that the UNP should discuss with the government the agenda for further democratisation of the system, the reconvening of parliament and knocking off the referendum altogether.

UNP Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya chipped in to say that the meeting should be held at a mutually agreed venue. This venue probably could be the BMICH.

At the opposition party leaders meeting on Wednesday at the Mayors Centre, Mr. Wickremesinghe explained the UNP's position, saying structured talks should begin with the government on matters such as democratisation of the system and a caretaker government of all parties. 

UNP's legal expert Tilak Marapana was also present at the meeting to help the party leader on any legal matter.

The UNP leader expressed fears that the President might not present the policy statement on September 7. He said the policy statement was a requirement in terms of article 33 of the Constitution. He was also of the opinion that the policy statement could be put to vote in the House.

It was also pointed out that since 1978 Parliament had been prorogued on 14 occasions and on all these occasions the head of the state had ceremonially opened parliament followed by a policy statement. 

The opposition believes that if the President does not come, it may be an indication that she will prorogue parliament again and eventually dissolve parliament and go for fresh elections.

The UNP is getting prepared for such an eventuality as well. "We are in any case meeting with the Speaker to set the agenda for September 7," Mr. Wickremesinghe told the joint opposition. 

The UNP Leader is expected to meet with the Speaker on Monday and discuss the possibility of taking up the no-confidence motion against the government on the 7th itself. 

The UNP leaders also proposed that in the event the government side disagreed to the taking up of the motion on September 7, citing the President's policy statement in parliament, the opposition parties should move to suspend the Standing Orders, set their own agenda and continue the sittings of Parliament. They said this should be the plan of action even if parliament was prorogued for the second time.

Standing Order 135 states: "Anyone or more of these Standing Orders may be suspended on a motion made after notice by a majority of members at any meeting to enable any special business to be considered or disposed of.

"Provided that a motion under this order unless proposed by a minister of the cabinet shall be decided by a division and shall be declared lost if it appears that less than 20 members voted in the majority in support of the motion."

Since the joint opposition has a strength of 115 votes in Parliament now, it is likely that the motion would go ahead despite any directive by the President. 

The UNP has also finalised on resolutions, calling for the setting up of independent commissions for elections, public services, police, judicial services and media. A committee comprising W.J.M. Lokubandara, Tyronne Fernando, Mahinda Samarasinghe and Rohitha Bogollagama drafted the resolutions.

In the meantime, UNP wrote to the Prime Minister on Thursday responding to his earlier letter, saying that it had already appointed its negotiating committee comprising Karu Jayasuriya, Tyronne Fernando, Charitha Ratwatte and K.N. Choksy. 

The UNP wants to finalise the talks within a week, probably by next Tuesday. It says the talks should centre around reconvening of Parliament, cancellation of the referendum and the 17th Amendment to the Constitution which would include the five commissions discussed earlier. 

The UNP's main objective in forming a government of national reconciliation is to put the economy on the right track. Mr. Wickremesinghe revealed this at the business leaders' forum where he answered questions. 

Business leaders believe the UNP will be in a better position to bring about a positive change in the economy. Mr. Wickremesinghe requested the business leaders to give first priority to the salaries of workers and to keep the work force together in this crisis situation and to give low priority to taxes and other government levies in view of the present crisis. The mood of the business leaders was buoyant, according to UNP sources.

While the UNP leader has responded positively to the prime ministers letter, a section of the UNP is said to be opposing any move to join hands with the government.

"What is the logic behind the forming of a government of national reconciliation when we can form a government of our own? Why should we go after the PA?" asks UNP Parliamentarian Ravi Karunanayake. 

He told a recent UNP parliamentary group meeting that the UNP would let down the people if it did not bring down the government.

Mr. Karunanayake cautioned the members not to trust the PA leaders, saying they would say something and do something else. He recalled a PA parliamentary group meeting in 1994 and said that at this meeting the President spoke of the corruption of the UNP regime but at the end of her speech she promised two liquor licences to each MP. 

Mr. Karunanayake and others in this group advocate a French model of cohabitation where the Prime Minister is equally powerful as the President.

But if the President moves to prorogue Parliament again on September 7 without having a session of Parliament, what could be the situation? The prorogation marks the end of a session. If the President resorts to a second prorogation as the first one ends, then it is clearly a move to frustrate Parliament and its functions. Then the Speaker can decide what should be done.

Former Supreme Court Judge K. M. M. B. Kulatunga says "that if she acts arbitrarily you have no remedy because you cannot sue the President in Court. All that you can do then is to adopt a revolutionary method and can go on with Parliamentary business. There is no need to execute the head of state as Cromwell did in the British parliamentary history. If the President does not deliver a policy speech, you can assume that she is not troubled and can continue the parliamentary business. Impeaching the President and going through various other procedures is a waste of time," Justice Kulatunga said.

Meanwhile, another interesting development took place this week. As the UNP sent a positive response to the Prime Minster's letter, Ministers G. L. Peiris and S. B. Dissanayake who were widely reported to be at odds with the President and pondering a crossover pledged their support to the government in writing.

Political sources said the letters of loyalty from ministers Peiris and Dissanayake were given at a special meeting of the PA parliamentary group on Thursday. 

Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake reportedly told the group amidst cheers that the two ministers had given letters to him pledging loyalty and assuring they would vote against the no-confidence motion against the government if and when it was presented in Parliament. 

The sources said after the group meeting which had concluded on a jubilant note, some MPs called at Minister Dissanayake's residence. They said the Presidentís co-ordinating secretary Lasantha Alagiyawanna and PSD director Nihal Karunaratne also visited Mr. Dissanayake and were with him for about two hours. 

The new developments came in the wake of the Bribery Commission initiating probes on Samurdhi funds, which come under Mr. Dissanayake's ministry.

However the duo were strangely absent at a tea party hosted by the Prime minister at Temple Trees.

Meanwhile, the ousted Cricket Board chief Thilanga Sumathipala and his Deputy A. J. M. Muzammil are believed to have played the roles of political brokers. Mr.Sumathipala is also believed to have arranged meetings with Mr. Wickremesinghe and S. B. Dissanayake at his residence. 

Meanwhile, Mr. Muzammil, who is the national organiser of the NUA, had met with the President soon after the sacking of Rauf Hakeem. He told both Mr. Hakeem and Mr. Wickremesinghe about his meeting with the President. However, Mr. Hakeem is playing safe at the moment without criticising the President. He says he does not want to bring down the President but there should be reforms in the system. His Eastern province tour two weeks ago was fruitful and he knows that there is a lot of power behind him. 

Coming back to Mr. Sumathipala, the government is believed to be moving to 'fix' him on various allegations, because Mr. Sumathipala has reportedly brought about a SA-Ranil deal.

Mr. Sumathipala has now obtained an anticipatory bail to keep himself above the political high water mark.

Meanwhile, amidst this political uncertainty, the US and Indian Envoys had separate meetings with the President during the past week or so to express concern about the deteriorating political situation in the country. 

They want stability instead of instability and a concerted effort by both PA and UNP to bring about political certainty. 

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