ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday September 2, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 14
Columns - Political Column  

Make or break vote in parliament

  • National Congress to move vote of no-confidence; JVP on political tightrope
  • CBK meets Ranil and Mangala, decides to keep low profile

By Our Political Editor

Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga holding her first meeting with SLFP-M leader Mangala Samaraweera. Pic by Saman Kariyawasam

The first tough test of strength for the fledgling almost two year-old Mahinda Rajapaksa regime will come in Parliament in the coming weeks. The opposition National Congress is to move a vote of no-confidence based on a number of critical issues. They include the skyrocketing cost of living, allegations of corruption, particularly in the procurement of MiG-27 aircraft from Ukraine, and the moves to raise dollar loans from foreign banks. The motion is now being drafted.

Two important aspects make the no-confidence motion significant. One is the move by the National Congress leaders, particularly Ranil Wickremesinghe and Mangala Samaraweera, to throw a challenge at the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), to throw the gauntlet, so to say, because of the JVP's prevarication to come out openly against the Rajapaksa administration. Since the motion is based on some issues on which the JVP itself has been taking a public stance against the Government, NC leaders believe the motion would compel the JVP to take up a position in Parliament. "If they vote against the motion, it only confirms our charges that they are duplicitous. They stand accused then of taking one position publicly opposing the Government, and another privately in backing the Government," said a National Congress spokesman.

The JVP response to the move appears to have come even before news of the no-confidence motion became public. Addressing a Jana Sangwaada, at Matara on Monday, part of a series of JVP rallies countrywide, JVP Parliamentary Group leader Wimal Weerawansa declared his party would only topple the Government if the interests of the country as well as that of the people were jeopardised. He said the JVP would not behave at the behest of the opposition political parties.

He said, "Mangala is calling us to join them. We do not want to join them. He is 'Mannyan' (Confused). Tv stations carried his speech referring to Mangala in his hometown of Matara as a confused man. The remarks came, as there were clear moves by some Government top-rungers to woo the JVP back into supporting them, fully. At least one of them, a key player, made informal approaches to the JVP this week. He wanted to know whether the JVP had some proposals to make for the forthcoming budget. He said such proposals could be accommodated in the budget to be presented in Parliament, as of now, in November. Quite clearly, Government leaders are concerned that defeat in Parliament during budget vote is a grim possibility. Constitutionally, when the Government loses a budget vote, it must call a General Election. Hence, the request made to the JVP. Incorporation of their proposals, they felt, would automatically ensure JVP support for the budget.

However, the JVP snubbed the move. There was no response from them. Thus, the vote at the budget debate will remain an issue in political suspense. Now, the proposed no-confidence motion brings in a new dimension and adds to that suspense. A formal JVP response to the no-confidence motion will not be forthcoming for sometime. Weerawansa is leading a ten-member Parliamentary delegation to China. His JVP parliamentary colleagues Jayantha Samaraweera (Kalutara district), Ranaweera Pathirana (Anuradhapura district) and Jayantha Wijesekera (Trincomalee district) are in the delegation. A string of meetings with Chinese leaders is on their itinerary.

Return of Chandrika

The second aspect, more important, is the question whether National Congress leaders will be in a position to carry the motion through. This question assumes greater significance in the light of reports that disillusioned sections in the Government benches may vote in favour of the motion - the result of which would be the beginning of the fall of the Government. The discontent among Government MPs including some Ministers is no longer a secret. They are unhappy over a number of issues. The mounting cost of living and their inability to provide jobs to unemployed in their electorates, they complain, is isolating them from the voters. They are also worried about being not allowed to rightfully involve themselves in governance since a selected coterie close to President Rajapaksa, including his brothers, were having a monopoly. "Look at their faces", said a critic. "There are no signs of contentment in any of them".

None other than the former President, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, reflected this discontent among the Government parliamentarians including Ministers. She disclosed this to United National Party and Opposition leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe during a 45-minute one-to-one meeting she held at her official residence at Independence Square on Wednesday. This was her first formal meeting with Wickremesinghe since the National Congress was formed, and one of the aides when asked how the meeting went, quipped "Very well - it started on time and ended on time".

Contrary to speculation, Kumaratunga will not immediately enter active politics. This is by mounting political platforms and engaging in activities of the National Congress. However, this will not mean she will remain inactive. The Sunday Times has learnt that she gave a detailed brief to Wickremesinghe of her future plans. Among them was her desire to work with the Clinton Foundation, and other international work she had in mind. This meant that she would not be in Sri Lanka throughout. Kumaratunga was bitterly critical about her successor; President Rajapaksa who she said had snatched the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) after edging her out. She claimed that several Government parliamentarians including ministers were keeping in touch with her, complaining regularly about their unhappiness. Kumaratunga is to remain active by issuing public statements on important issues and engaging in public interest litigation.

She told Wickremesinghe that she wished the National Congress well, but that she would remain an SLFPer. Her role would then be to support her protégé Mangala Samaraweera in his political work, and thereby to 'salvage' the ruling SLFP from incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa and hand it over to Mangala Samaraweera at a future date. Wickremesinghe seemed to have no dispute with Kumaratunga remaining an SLFPer. His view is that as Opposition Leader he will rally all the forces that are against the Rajapaksa administration, under whatever coloured flag.

On Friday Kumaratunga had the first official meeting with the SLFP-M led by her ally and former Foreign Minister, Mangala Samaraweera. Accompanying the latter were Sripathi Sooriyaratchchi, MP and businessman Tiran Alles. The discussion lasted three hours and covered a broader spectrum of issues.

Kumaratunga congratulated Samaraweera for forming the National Congress together with the UNP. She said she had tried for eleven years to forge a common alliance with the UNP but did not succeed. Such moves had included discussions with Wickremesinghe on several occasions, and later what was known as the Mano-Malik talks among many other initiatives. However, she said, the SLFP-M should maintain its own identity. She said that many of the SLFP supporters whom she had spoken to were worried that the UNP would swallow the SLFP Mahajana Wing.

Samaraweera interjected to point out that the issue was uppermost in their mind. It was with this objective that the party was organising a string of seminars countrywide. The first would be held in Kandy on September 8, followed by a similar event in Polonnaruwa the next day. The idea behind these seminars was to afford an opportunity to SLFP members to come forward and raise questions, as to why the Mahajana Wing was formed. He said they would then be able to explain what he called the dictatorial role of the Rajapaksa brothers. He said strengthening the Mahajana Wing would place them in a stronger position to deal with the UNP.

Samaraweera then made an unusual request from Kumaratunga. He said she should not get on the stages of the National Congress rallies. He said she should however remain in the SLFP. Surveys conducted by the Mahajana Wing had showed that Kumaratunga still commanded a large volume of support among SLFP members. Thus, she must work with the SLFP and keep contact with the Mahajana Wing. He said even if Kumaratunga did not intend taking part in politics, she should take over the reins of the party founded by her late father S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and nurtured by her mother, Sirimavo. He charged that like the Government, the Party has also now become a tool of the Rajapaksa family combine.

After their dialogue with Kumaratunga, the National Congress leaders took part in their latest rally in Ratnapura. Despite inclement weather conditions, eye witnesses said over 10,000 people took part. Some listed to speak were asked to call it off as the rains persisted. Organisers had distributed a questionnaire as a novel method to the traditionally Leftist approach of 'educating the masses'.
This questionnaire had five questions; What is the actual name of the President; Who in the defence establishment has taken a commission of Rs. 800 Million for the purchase of MiG-27 jets; Who is known as Mr. Ten Per Cent in modern Lanka; Who is the politician who gave kappan to the LTTE to ensure a voter boycott in the North and East at the last Presidential election; and who is the first Sri Lankan journalist who exposed the MiG-27 racket.

People were asked to give their National ID numbers as well, which put some of them off for fear of reprisals. Eventually, the first winning all-correct answers came from a lady in the audience. She won a wall-clock as her prize.

MiG deal and dollar loan

Opposition and UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe went to great lengths to explain the alleged corrupt activity in the procurement of MiG-27 fighter jets. He declared that Iqbal Athas who had disclosed them in the Situation Report in The Sunday Times was being hounded by the Government. His personal security as well as the static guard placed outside his house was withdrawn after the exposure of the corrupt deal. Government backed thugs had demonstrated outside his house and attempts were being made to infuse fear so he will stop disclosing corrupt activity, he said.

Wickremesinghe said Athas had disclosed an important fact, that being J.P. Morgan Bank being involved in the transaction with Belimissa Holding, the questionable company that was linked to the MiG-27 purchase. He said it seemed a happy co-incidence that J.P. Morgan is also one of the international banks from which the Sri Lanka Government was now seeking a US $ 500 Million loan facility on commercial terms.

International reactions over the Athas saga continues with several media organisations worldwide making representations to President Mahinda Rajapaksa and other Government leaders. Some of their responses appear on the opposite page. As our front page report reveals, the United States Government has officially joined in to urge immediate Government action. A notable absentee at the Ratnapura rally, however, was the UNP's Co-National Organiser, S.B. Dissanayake. Dissanayake had produced several excuses to absent himself since his attendance at the inaugural rally at Hyde Park in Colombo where he went out on a limb to criticise Mahinda Rajapaksa and his Government.

At Matara, he had been abroad. At Attanagalla, his official excuse was that he had only arrived in the country the day before, but in fact it was his fear that Chandrika Kumaratunga, his erstwhile leader, would be present. For the Ratnapura meeting he was making various excuses ranging from being indisposed to not being listed to speak, to having to attend a protest rally in Badulla.
Dissanayake's disappointment with the MoU signed by the UNP with the SLFP-M is not concealed by him. Though he hugged and kissed Samaraweera on stage at Hyde Park, he resents him being sidelined by the new axis. UNPers say that he has opened a fresh dialogue with the Government, and is in 'touch' with a vociferous Minister from the Gampaha district. He has said he would meet Wickremesinghe upon his return, but it's over a week and he's yet to do so.

Contradictory statements

Meanwhile, on the Government front, a notable highlight of the Rajapaksa administration has been the contradictory statements made regularly by its Ministers and officials. In the recent past, Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake called UN Under Secretary General, Sir John Holmes a devil. Government Spokesman and Cabinet Minister, Jeyaraj Fernandpulle went a step further and branded him a terrorist.

Retired Lieutenant Colonel Gotabhaya Rajapaksa told a passing out parade of the Civil Security Force at Galkiriyagama (in the Anuradhapura district) last Sunday, that the North would be soon cleared of Tiger guerrilla activity. He declared that he did not want it left to the next generation, and that this Government would learn from the mistakes of the past by allowing the Tigers to re-group under some pretext or other after having faced a heavy defeat. The remarks by the man who runs the country's military and police gained added significance in the light of little progress being made by the All Party Representative Committee (APRC). It meant the Government would vigorously pursue the military option whilst the political initiatives remain stalled. But his remarks were contradicted.

Foreign Minister Rohita Bogollagama who is on an official visit to Malaysia declared that the Government had no plans for a major offensive on uncleared areas in the North. He told Reuters in an interview, "We want the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to return to the negotiation table." Who is right? Do Bogollagma's remarks constitute a policy shift by the Government where there will now be emphasis on peace initiatives instead of military offensives? Or, is it part of the macro level Government strategy where one is allowed to make strong remarks only to be denied by another, leaving everyone confused. Before he left Colombo, Bogollagama was also to rebuff his Cabinet colleague Fernandopulle over the remarks about Sir John Holmes being a terrorist.
He said Fernandopulle's views were personal and did not reflect the Government's position. Would Bogollagama now say that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa's views are personal too? Whatever the arguments may be, this new development comes as Minister of Human Rights and Disaster Management, Mahinda Samarasinghe is to lead a Government delegation to Norway. Another who will travel with him is leader of the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP), Douglas Devananda.

The odds, however, are that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is right. From various accounts of independent sources, the Government's Security Forces are preparing for an onslaught on the Tiger rebels in the North. Military Hospitals are getting a facelift in preparation for casualties. Troops are on full alert and in combat ready gear from Habarana northward. The lashing monsoonal rains seem to be keeping things cool, at least for the moment.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.