Political Column
By our Political Correspondent
6th January 2002
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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 National Party.

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 the party.

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," he said. 

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.

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