Political Column
By our Political Correspondent
3rd February 2002
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JSS overplaying its hand

Postponing local government elections in the North-East will be a tough task for the government as it faces a major legal snag. 

All local bodies have completed the maximum term of office allowed under the Local Government Elections Act, which says the local elections could be postponed only for 12- month under certain circumstances. The 12 months period has now lapsed and there is no way the elections could be postponed, legal experts point out.

Even the declaration for the first postponement was illegal as the power to make that declaration does not lie with the minister in charge of local government, the legal experts claim, pointing out that it was made by the local government minister of the PA regime.

They lament that none had challenged this illegal move in courts.

According to them, the local government is a devolved subject under the 13th Amendment to the constitution _ meaning that matters related to local government elections fall within the ambit of the provincial councils and therefore provincial minister is the legitimate authority, if any postponement is to be effected.

Thus they are of the opinion that the term of local bodies had been extended without proper legal authority and functions carried out by these local authorities during the period in question could be declared null and void by a court of law.

In this backdrop, comes the move to postpone the local government elections in the north-east at the request of Tamil parties. 

The Tamil National Alliance pushed for such a postponement, claiming that the peace process could be affected if there had been any violence. 

They also said the situation in the north-east was not conducive for elections because of large-scale displacement of Tamil voters in the region.

The main Muslim party, the SLMC, which has its base in the east, however, holds a different view. Its leader, Rauff Hakeem, conceded that there might be problems with regard to elections in the north, but insisted that the polls should be held in the east where the situation is relatively peaceful.

The matter was discussed recently at a meeting presided over by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and attended by TNA leaders and Mr. Hakeem. At this meeting, it was decided to hold elections only in the Digamadulla electoral district.

The government is now looking at ways and means of putting off the elections through an administrative process. But only the Elections Commissioner could do this.

If the Elections Commissioner does not receive nominations or if he is of the opinion that the elections cannot be held due to security reasons, then there is a possibility of postponing elections.

Another option is to amend the local government election law to empower the minister of the central government or the provincial minister to postpone elections on security grounds.

There is a third option also. This involves a promulgation of a state of emergency by the President. 

In the past, emergency regulations had been invoked to carry out tricky administrative functions. For instance, President J. R. Jayewardene had made use of emergency regulations to postpone the referendum in the east to decide on the fate of the merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces under the 13th Amendment to the constitution. 

The PA regime was compelled to allow the state of emergency lapse when the UNP and its allies withdrew support for its extension last year amidst a major political crisis.

Now the question is will President Kumaratunga extend her support and goodwill to the UNF government to make use of emergency regulations to postpone the NE local council elections? For the President to agree to this option, there should be a better camaraderie between the President and the UNF government. 

At present, the relationship appears to be a love-hate one but leaning more towards the hate-hate end of the spectrum.

The President has said on numerous occasions that she will not stand on the way of the peace efforts of the UNF government. UNP sources say if she is true to her words, she must help the UNF government to put off the local government elections in the north-east as the postponement is sought to safeguard the peace process.

PSD case

The love-hate relationship between the President and the UNF government took a dramatic turn on Wednesday when Ms. Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe met for two hours after the cabinet meeting. 

Issues related to the Samurdhi portfolio and the arrest warrant on the President's chief body guard Nihal Karunaratne were raised at the meeting.

The President told Mr. Wickremesinghe that she intended to address the nation on the national media to put the record straight over various allegations involving the PSD. The Prime Minister said he had no objections.

Rumours doing the Colombo's political circles said President Kumaratunga had reportedly suggested that she would agree to swear-in S. B. Dissanayake as the Samurdhi Minister provided that charges against the PSD chief Karunaratne were dropped. 

Hulftsdorp sources, meanwhile, said the Attorney General's Department had been approached to find out whether the charges against the PSD boss could be dropped. Additional Solicitor General Rienzie Arsecularatne is reported to have said that there was nothing the AG's department could do since a summons had already been issued by the judiciary for the arrest of the PSD chief.

Peace initiative

In the meantime, the government's peace initiative is making progress through Norwegian facilitation though reports of the LTTE engaging in forced conscription and fund-raising cause concern. 

Norwegian negotiators are shuttling between London and Oslo, trying to work out a memorandum of understanding for a permanent truce between the security forces and the LTTE.

According to the LTTE's chief negotiator, Anton Balasingham, considerable progress has been made in this direction with the government and the LTTE submitting proposals to the Norwegian team. It is believed a permanent ceasefire deal could be finalised before February 24.

Minister Hakeem has also entered the peace process in a big way, presenting the case of the Muslims. He has told government leaders that the safety of the Muslims in the North and the East should be taken into consideration when arriving at a permanent truce deal with the LTTE.

Mr. Hakeem had earlier written to the LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, that the Muslims in the East should be able to live with some dignity and the LTTE should be sensitive to the apprehensions of the Muslim community in the North and the East.

He urged the LTTE leader to recognise the right of the displaced Muslims to return to their villages in the North if the LTTE was seeking a just and a peaceful solution for the north-east problem.

At present Ministers G.L. Peiris and Milinda Moragoda are actively engaged in pushing the peace process towards reality.

The government knows it is facing many an obstacle on the path to peace. And it knows the whole process is a gamble. 

Already, several Sinhala groups have cautioned the Prime Minister against hastily moving into the peace process and lifting the ban on the LTTE.

In a bid to counter opposition from the Sinhala-Buddhist groups, the prime minister had to make his government's position doubly clear. 

At a meeting with Ven. Madihe Pannasiha Mahanayake Thera, Mr. Wickremesinghe said the government would not accept the homeland concept - a theory put forward by the LTTE. The prime minister's assertion helped remove, to an extent, doubts entertained by Sinhala groups.

PA crisis

Besides the peace process, another topic that hit the national headlines this week was the crisis in the PA over the opposition leader's post.

The opposition PA seems to be in total disarray following the December 5 elections.

Soon after the election defeat, a section of the PA became vociferous and wanted former minister Mahinda Rajapakse appointed as the leader of the opposition instead of former prime minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, who, they charged, lacked dynamism to lead the party from the opposition. However, the President ended the leadership battle by backing Mr. Wickremanayake's claim for the post. The matter temporarily ended there only to resurface a couple of weeks later with SLFP grassroots-level branches, calling for the removal of Mr. Wickremanayake from the post of opposition leader and the appointment of Mr. Rajapakse. 

The agitation in support of Mr. Rajapakse coincided with Mr. Wickremanayake's sudden illness. Mr. Wickremanayake before he went abroad for medical treatment decided to quit the post, thus paving the way for the party leadership to appoint whoever they consider fit to hold this position.

The move cleared the way for Mr. Rajapakse to take over, but a section of the party tried to persuade Mr. Wickremanayake to remain in the post. 

But these efforts made by PA stalwarts, including former Minister Mangala Samaraweera, had proved to be futile, with Mr. Wickremanayake standing firm on his decision to quit.

Mr. Wickremanayake's decision has not only created a void in the PA hierarchy, but also led to confusion in governmental matters. Though the party is said to have appointed Richard Pathirana in an acting capacity to oversee the work of the leader of the opposition, Chief Government Whip Mahinda Samarasinghe refused to accept this position on the basis that the Speaker had not been duly informed of this.

Some PA members are urging the President to sort out the matter fast without allowing the crisis to cause a major division in the party. But the question is will she give her consent to Mr. Rajapakse taking over as the opposition leader. 

If she does, it may pave the way for the Bandaranaike family losing its foothold in the party after a half a century of stewardship. Ms. Kumaratunga appears to be in a dilemma. She wants to promote her brother Anura Bandaranaike to the leadership position but she also knows that the time is not ripe for such a move. 

In the circumstances she may try to keep Richard Pathirana as the leader of the opposition for the time being but this move is likely to be opposed vehemently by the party rank and file.

Some PA sources have privately expressed their dissatisfaction over moves to bring Mr. Bandaranaike to the leadership fold. They say if the President was grooming another Bandaranaike to prepare him for the next presidential election, then the PA is not interested in winning that election.

Ministers clash

While the PA crisis continues amidst confusion and contradictory reports, the government is getting ready to present its maiden budget on March 22, three days later than the earlier scheduled date.

The date had to be changed to facilitate the conduct of the local government elections, which are likely to be held on March 18 or 19.

To make the budget growth-oriented and people-friendly one, the government has sent Minister Milinda Moragoda to Washington to hold talks with international financial agencies to brief them on the new government's policies. 

Minister Moragoda as a peace activist and economic reforms minister is doing a good job, but Rehabilitation Minister Jayalath Jayawardena had some problems with him.

Dr. Jayawardena who had been involved in humanitarian work in the north-east region even before the UNF government came into office, apparently did not believe that Mr. Moragoda shoud be stepping into areas that came under his ministry's purview.

Last week UNP insiders were talking about a directive given by Minister Moragoda to senior security forces officers in the North. The minister is said to have asked the security forces officers not to facilitate the movement of any person without the Peace Secretariat being first informed.

Dr. Jayawardena was apparently not happy over the developments, made representations to the Prime Minister who solved the dispute amicably.

Minister Jayawardena believes that the people in the uncleared areas should be provided with all basic amenities such as health facilities, telecommunication, transport and irrigation. 

This is not the only internal squabbles in the UNF government. Apparently ministers are claming that their respective areas have been trespassed by other ministers who are in charge of similar subjects. 

Ministers who are handling the government's peace efforts often tend to tread on the areas meant for the Defence Ministry. All these things have to be sorted out amicably if the government is to march forward to implement its programme of peace and development.

All ministries have been given a 100-day target to achieve certain goals and every minister has come up with some programmes to achieve tangible results within the deadline. 

In this connection, Labour Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe has come up with ambitious projects to promote the case of the working people. 

Besides a housing scheme for workers, he is taking up the case of the Sri Lankan migrant workers who swell Sri Lanka's foreign exchange earnings.

Minister Samarasinghe has been successful in persuading the International Migration Organisation to open an office in Colombo. The IMO will implement a project to teach English and other foreign languages to those seeking employment abroad so that they could find jobs easily in West Asia and elsewhere.

He is also negotiating with UN officials and envoys of the permanent member states in the UN Security Council to help obtain compensation for 5,000 Sri Lankan returnees from Kuwait during the 1991 Gulf War. These Sri Lankans were unable to process their applications due to the short deadline.

JSS mafia

With the UNP's victory, there appears to be some sort of disorder in the management of state-controlled institutions, especially Lake House. It is alleged that the UNP trade union, Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya, has taken control over the affairs of Lake House, often interfering with editorial work and administrative affairs. 

Promotions and salary increase have been arbitrarily given to JSS cronies. Other trade unions operating in Lake House had complained to the Media Minister about the sad state of affairs.

The new Media Minister has said that he would make Lake House a media institution in keeping with the hallowed traditions of media freedom. 

But trade union sources said that there was still a long way to go in this direction. They said unless the government steps in and disciplines the JSS, the whole credibility of the Wickremesinghe administration would be at stake. Will the Government heed this advice and take action?

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