Shuffling the pack on the cards
The untimely death of senior cabinet minister Gamini
Atukorale a few hours after the New Year dawned created a void in the United
As the assistant leader of the party during the recent past and nearly
seven years as its general secretary, Mr. Atukorale put his heart and soul
together to revive the party and bring it back to office.
A versatile and dynamic politician, Mr. Atukorale was the workhorse
behind Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's plans. On numerous occasions
he reactivated the party during seven years in opposition whenever he felt
the party was drifting towards political inertia.
Defeats he faced were many in his political career, but undeterred he
forged ahead until he achieved his goal.
The biggest turnaround in his political career came in 1994 when he
was thrust into party top slot along with Mr. Wickremesinghe in the aftermath
of the death of UNP presidential candidate Gamini Dissanayake in a suicide
bomb attack in Colombo. Under a formula worked out by former UNP stalwart
A. C. S. Hameed, Mr. Wickremesinghe was made party leader while Mr. Atukorale
was given the general secretary post.
Mr. Atukorale was Mr. Wickremesinghe's first choice for the post of
general secretary as the duo had a long working relationship. Mr. Atukorale
first worked with Mr. Wickremesinghe as his deputy in the Youth Affairs
Ministry and both of them got on well.
In a tribute to the late Mr. Atukorale, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe
said: "He entered politics in 1973 with me. We entered Parliament together
and worked in the Youth Affairs Ministry for a long time. He joined me
in the difficult task of rebuilding the UNP since our defeat in 1994.
We worked together. Revival of the nation was our vision. But before
we could see this vision come true, my companion left me halfway. My companion,
may you attain Nibbana."
But like any other relationship, the Wickremesinghe-Atukorale relationship,
too, had sour points. In April 2000 when some 20 UNP Parliamentarians calling
themselves reformists, rebelled against the party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe,
Mr. Atukorale backed the rebellion.
He was later exonerated when it became clear that his support for the
reformist came solely as an attempt to strengthen the party and not with
malice towards the party leader.
The reformist group's main grievance was that Mr. Wickremesinghe let
go an opportunity to topple the Kumaratunga government by defeating the
budget though the party had enough support even among government benchers
for the move. Mr. Wickremesinghe had a different plan close to his heart.
He did not believe in short-lived and premature euphoria.
He emphasized on the need for a well-planned approach to topple the
government. Accordingly, a political affairs committee was set up, aimed
at ousting the government. With this committee going into full gear, the
differences within the party soon withered away and the party emerged a
powerful opposition to win the election this year.
Another occasion where the two leaders differed was the formation of
a government of national reconciliation. While, Mr. Wickremesinghe strongly
believed such a government was necessary to solve the country's burning
problems, Mr. Atukorale opposed any coalition with the People's Alliance.
He held the view that the United National Front should form the government
on its own in deference to the people's mandate at the general election.
And he felt that the victory at the general election did not come on a
platter. Much hard work had gone into it – in planning and executing the
crossover episode and bringing about a dissolution of parliament. Mr. Atukorale
was very much a major force along with party leader Wickremesinghe and
deputy leader Karu Jayasuriya in mapping out and implementing UNP strategies.
Mr. Atukorale had some rare qualities of fighting for a cause. He was
the only man in the party who could stand up to the leader at any crisis
time and fight back for what he believed to be right and yet remain in
Mr. Atukorale had all the qualifications to stake a claim for the premiership
in the event Mr. Wickremesinghe won the Presidential elections, because
he is more senior than other contenders in the party. But now nobody is
sure who will fill the vacuum created by Mr. Atukorale's death. It is likely
that the UNP will not appoint an assistant leader. It may even scrap the
post that was exclusively created to accommodate Mr. Atukorale.
The shocking news of Mr. Atukorale's death came at a time when the party
was launching its 100-day programme, which requires each minister to complete
the task assigned to them within that time frame.
Besides, Mr. Atukorale's death and the UNF government's 100-day programme,
another topic to dominate news this week was the peace process which has
already shown signs of progress.
At present, Ministers G.L. Peiris and Milinda Moragoda handle matters
connected with the peace process with senior diplomat Bernard Gunatilleke
acting as coordinator. Mr. Gunatilleke has a reputation for possessing
remarkable negotiating skills. He successfully negotiated the visit of
Pope John Paul II to Sri Lanka, by convincing the then President D. B.
Wijetunga on the merits of the visit.
The peace process faces many hurdles with the lifting of the ban imposed
on the LTTE appearing to be most difficult one. The LTTE in the past has
made the lifting of the ban a pre-requisite for any talks with the government.
A senior minister told this column that the government was ready to
take a risk if the LTTE was genuinely interested in peace.
"The question of suspending the ban is seriously being considered,"
The suspension is not expected to affect the ban imposed on the LTTE
in countries such as India, America, Canada, Australia and the UK.
In this context, it is important for the government to handle the peace
process diligently. The Norwegians have already set in motion the task
of bringing the LTTE back to the negotiating table. As an initial step
towards this, Deputy Foreign Minister Heldgeson of Norway had a meeting
with LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham in London over the weekend.
The Norway initiative was a sequel to the telephone discussion Prime
Minister Mr. Wickremesinghe had with his Norwegian counterpart and a letter
written by Velupillai Prabhakaran to the Norway Prime Minister expressing
his confidence in a Norwegian backed settlement for the Sri Lanka's ethnic
conflict. Prabhakaran in a letter to the Prime Minister of Norway said:
"I am writing this letter for you to seek your government's continuous
engagement as the facilitator to help finding a stable peace and a permanent
settlement to the ethnic conflict."
If all goes well, the government is likely to start its peace process
in early March.
While giving priority to the peace process, the government is also concentrating
its energies on the upcoming local government elections.
The government is to introduce amendments to the local government election
legislation and thereby reduce the time between the proclamation and nominations
and between the nomination day and the election day in a bid to curb polls
violence. The government feels that it is futile to waste time by giving
long periods when most of the candidates were used to submit their applications
within the last two days of the nomination period.
The Local Government special amendment bill will come up as an urgent
bill and is likely to be passed by January 8.
The government last week also agreed to an opposition demand to hold
a full-day debate on election violence. The opposition called for the debate
to highlight the ongoing post-election violence, but the government in
a countermove suggested that election violence in general – meaning both
the pre-and-post elections violence – should be debated on January 9.
Election violence should not be confined to parliamentary debates. The
government with the cooperation of opposition parties should take steps
to stem election violence and ensure that people's sovereignty is upheld.
It is also important that Parliamentary debate should not be made into
a mud-slinging match. Instead, the government and the opposition should
appoint a committee to look into this problem.
It is the responsibility of the new government and its Interior Minister
John Amaratunga to ensure the polls conducted during its tenure are free
from violence. The new government can set an example by at least minimising
election violence during the local polls in March. Civic organisations
and people will judge the new government's commitment to democracy by the
manner in which it conducts the March polls.
It is also hoped that the polls campaign is conducted on an issue-oriented
basis. Instead of slander and other dirty warfare, both the main parties
should deal with issues affecting people at local government level. This
type of gentlemen politics will help the government in its peace efforts.
If it wins the goodwill of the opposition, the government's task of getting
parliamentary approval for any devolution formula won't be that difficult.
In the circumstances, it is important that both these parties think
positively and work together to achieve peace.
Meanwhile, the first budget of the new UNF government is likely to be
presented in the first week of March. But at the same time the government
is considering whether a vote on account is needed to cover the period
up to March and legal opinion is being sought in this regard.
In a conciliatory move, the government has decided to offer the chairpersonship
of two key parliamentary committees to the opposition. The move, the government
believes, will lead to greater transparency in government dealings and
strengthen the system of checks and balances.
A senior minister told this column that they do not want to repeat the
mistake the previous Government did by not allowing the COPE and the PAC
to be headed by the opposition, though the UNP's John Amaratunga held the
chairmanship of the Committee on Public Enterprises for a short period
before the dissolution last year
In another move, six non-cabinet ministers are tipped to be elevated
to cabinet rank while four MPs are expected to be made non-cabinet ministers
in the first cabinet reshuffle of the Wickremesinghe administration. Those
tipped to be given non-cabinet portfolios are Lakshman Yapa Abeywardene,
Ranjith Madduma Bandara, Hema Kumara Nanayakkara and Keheliya Rambukwella
while Karunasena Kodituwakku, Imtiaz Bakeer Markar, Mahinda Samarasinghe,
Milinda Moragoda, Ravi Karunanayake and Rajitha Senaratne are expected
to get cabinet posts.
But this reshuffle not take place till after the local government elections.
The portfolio held by the late Gamini Atukorale Aviation, Transport
and Highways is likely to be attended to by one of the present Cabinet
Ministers pending the re-shuffle.
Meanwhile, in accordance with the new government's 100-day programme,
the Labour Ministry has contracted Ernest and Young Consultants Firm to
draw up an employment policy for Sri Lanka. Labour Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe
has also appointed a tripartite committee comprising members of the government,
members representing the employers and the trade unions to assist the consultants.
The committee will identify areas of growth in the private sector and
devise training programmes to match international requirements.
Once the employment policy is accepted by the cabinet, it will be binding
on all government departments and corporations to recruit people according
to the government's policy. Decentralisation of the Employees' Provident
Fund into three zones, namely, Matara, Kalutara and Kandy and declaring
the current year as a year of productivity are among the programmes the
ministry has lined up for its 100-day programme.