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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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?