Country at crossover road
- Who's with whom as the budget vote approaches?
- Retired armed forces chiefs in national government push
Wijedasa Rajapakse making a special statement in parliament after his ‘crossover’
Fears of defections and a possible defeat at tomorrow's voting on the second reading of the budget have shaken the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration that completed just two years only yesterday.
Will he dissolve Parliament to avoid the ignominy of a sizeable number including stalwarts deserting his Government? Alternatively, will he prorogue Parliament and allow time to win over opponents? On the other hand, is he hopeful that despite the pall of gloom that looms large, he will succeed in having the budget passed thus making his Government stronger and tougher? These are just some of the many questions staring in the face of a beleaguered President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who celebrates his 62nd birthday today.
It was barely a week earlier that Colombo-based diplomats, political analysts and even some opposition politicians concurred that a vote on the budget would be passed in Parliament. Buoyed by the Air Force raid that killed LTTE Political Wing leader, S.P. Thamilselvan while he was in a building in Kilinochchi, fears of a defeat for the Government on the budget vote receded. The reason - one of the key players, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), the key deciding factor with 39 MPs, it was felt, would, after all back the Government. The possibilities are still there. Its parliamentary group leader, Wimal Weerawansa, was unwavering. Even the somewhat humiliating military reversal at Muhamalai, where troops who broke through guerrilla defences were forced to return to their own, did not alter the mood.
Suddenly this week the baton on this political relay seems to have been wrested from Weerawansa by none other than JVP leader Somawansa Amerasinghe himself. During his address at the party's Heroes' Day commemoration, he set forth four demands for the Government in exchange for his party's support. They were: (1) Abolish the Ceasefire Agreement of February 2002; (2) Dissolve the All-Party Representative Committee (APRC) still busy formulating political proposals to end the ethnic conflict; (3) Ban UN officials from visiting Sri Lanka and not pay heed to their statements; and (4) An oath by the Government to protect Sri Lanka's sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Except a commitment on protecting the country's sovereignty and territorial integrity -- something which the Government is prepared to do at the drop of a hat -- the other three demands are far reaching. If that would further add to international isolation, it would pointedly anger neighbouring India. None other than President Rajapaksa had repeatedly assured Indian Premier Manmohan Singh that the political proposals would be made public soon. The last occasion was when he was in New Delhi last month to attend an event organised by the Hindustan Times.
Yet, the key players in the Rajapaksa administration were in favour of meeting the JVP demands. They even wanted to go a step further - re-impose a ban on the LTTE. After the state-run media were given the guidelines to "break the story and build up public opinion," some had second thoughts. At least one of them realised the repercussions were far too much. The idea was therefore dropped.
But the issue was alive again. It was one of the main topics at the government parliamentary group meeting on Wednesday. The group adopted two resolutions: (1) to ban the LTTE and (2) to hold talks with the JVP.
Acting on the group meeting decision, Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga wrote to the JVP, inviting its leaders for talks. But the JVP was very circumspect and did not respond. At a media conference yesterday, JVP General Secretary Tylvin Silva said the party's response to Weeratunga's letter would be sent today. But he categorically ruled out any meeting with the President or the possibility of a memorandum of understanding being signed with the ruling party.
But there was little meat for the media persons who wanted to know the stance of the JVP at tomorrow's crucial vote on the second reading of the budget. It remains a top secret. JVP sources say the stance they would take on Monday need not necessarily mean the same stance they would take at the voting on December 13, the final vote.
In politics, particularly in Sri Lanka, politicians of all hues wish to say what they deem uncomfortable only behind the scenes. The rest of what they say, particularly to the media, is things they want publicised. It was no different between the hawks and the doves in the JVP. The doves tried to play down the remarks made by Amerasinghe. They faulted the media for presenting the issues raised by him as demands but conceded their leader had declared he would consider the Government's response in determining their support. But the hawks made no bones about it.
They were categorical that the JVP leader was only being pragmatic and frank in his approach. One of them who spoke on grounds of anonymity declared "if President Rajapaksa and his Government want to fight LTTE terrorism and finish it before everything else, then we see no reason why other issues like a ceasefire or peace talks could become equal priority at this juncture. If he is truly committed to the objectives he has publicly spelt out, there is also no need for an APRC to formulate proposals now. It will have to come after terrorism is defeated. So it is up to President Rajapaksa to explain his duplicity." Yet, the hawks argue the time is still not ripe to defeat the Government and claim that at least another six months should pass.
Whether these are theatrics or political ploys at bargaining remains to be seen. On the one hand, the JVP is averse to the idea of a gain for the United National Party (UNP) if the budget is defeated. With a Government whose popularity is at the lowest ebb due to many reasons including the rising cost of living, they are aware, the UNP would have an edge at a future parliamentary general election. On the other hand, siding with a Government that has imposed so much burdens on the people and failed to provide relief through the budget, would earn the wrath of the rank and file. In fact, the regular members of the JVP are highly agitated that the party leadership should oppose the budget and vote against it. This is the decision the party's politburo will have to take when they meet for a lengthy session this evening.
However, the Government did not appear to have given up on the JVP. This is despite the General Secretary of the people's alliance, Minister Susil Premajayantha telling ITN on Thursday night that the Government did not need the votes of the JVP. He told the Thulawa talk show that without the JVP numbers, President Rajapaksa had more than 117 votes and the budget would be passed without difficulty. The remarks came amidst speculation in some sections of the Government that if the President was convinced the numbers were loaded against him, the prospects of dissolution of Parliament was on the cards.
President Rajapaksa was confident himself. On Thursday he met a delegation of retired armed forces commanders for talks followed by dinner. The meeting came barely two weeks after he had promoted all previous Army Commanders as four star generals. Similarly, retired commanders of the Navy and Air Force were also promoted to equivalent ranks. The delegation of retired commanders was meeting Rajapaksa, ostensibly to urge him, to forge a national Government with all opposition parties to meet the scourge of terrorism. Rajapaksa told them they should not only meet the opposition political parties but also other segments of civil society and canvas support for the Government's campaign against Tiger guerrilla terror.
Weeks before the Thursday meeting, the retired commanders had been meeting at the office of their convenor, retired Air Chief Marshal Pathman Mendis, a former Commander of the Air Force. It was at the office of the Civil Aviation Authority of which ACM Mendis is Chairman. That there was behind-the-scene sponsorship and support for the efforts of the retired commanders from the Government is known.
Though present at Temple Trees when the meeting between Rajapaksa and the retired service commanders got under way, Maj. Gen. (retd.) Fernando did not take part in the deliberations. The retired commanders are now planning to hold a news conference to canvass support for their efforts. The billion dollar question is whether the retired commanders will be able to persuade the opposition political parties to heed their call leave alone seeking meetings with them.
There were also doubts about the other key player, the Tamil National Alliance that has 22 members. At least one of its MPs is in favour of some of his colleagues keeping away from Parliament tomorrow. That is on the basis that a future UNP Government, unlike the Rajapaksa administration, would have the backing of the international community. But fears of such a situation arising were discounted by a senior TNA member. He told leaders of the National Congress (UNP and SLFP-M) that the party had issued a "three line whip" to all its MPs. In accordance with traditions of the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy, "a three-line whip" makes it mandatory for MPs of a political party to attend sessions when such a decree is issued by the party leadership.
When the three-line whip was issued, four TNA parliamentarians were away from Sri Lanka. Three of them -- Gajendran Ponnambalam, Selvaratnam Kajendran and Pathmini Sithamparanathan -- were told that their presence in Parliament tomorrow was essential. Gajendran returned today while Sithamparanathan is expected to arrive tomorrow morning. The fourth TNA MP, M.K. Eelaventhan, was in Canada but had later left for the United States. TNA sources said he would also be returning tomorrow in time for the crucial vote.
Heightening the tempo on Wednesday was Wijedasa Rajapakse, Chairman of the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE), which had made some damning disclosures of corruption and malpractices in state institutions. Since the Committee brought out its revelations, Rajapakse had been the object of a witch-hunt by Government politicians. Crossing over to the opposition benches to remain an independent member, Rajapakse said "bankrupt politicians who were not engaged in Rata Perata (country forward) programme but rather Kata Perata (mouth forward) and Rata Walata (country in the dump) programme were being idolised as the main pillars of Mahinda Chinthanaya. There has been no worse sign than looking at SLFP and JVP politicians who brought President Rajapaksa to power regretting today to see mounting corruption."
Rajapakse noted that "of those elected to Parliament in 2004 to govern the country, 40 are in the opposition and 48 of those who were not elected to govern are now in the Government. They are enjoying privileges as Ministers. It would have been all right if the people benefited from such a move. But those who joined the Government did so only to gain privileges."
There was a flurry of behind-the-scene activity with Rajapakse's crossover.
At the government group meeting on Wednesday, President Rajapaksa said he was not willing to dance to the tune of everyone. He said the Government must go on and if there was no option he would dissolve parliament. Dilan Perera, who himself was to drop a bombshell on the President and his party in the next 24 hours, got up said he was a good friend of Wijedasa Rajapakse but that did not mean he would cross over or support the UNP. He said if he were to cross over, he would go to the JVP, provided the Marxists-turned-nationalist party agreed to devolve power under a federal set up.
President Rajapaksa was spearheading moves to monitor possible crossovers from Government ranks and prevent them.
Yesterday President Rajapaksa met dissident MP Rajapakse and held what the Presidential Secretariat official called 'productive talks.' These sources said Rajapaksa and Rajapakse had sorted out their problems, indicating that the MP would not vote against the budget.
The meeting was preceded by an argument in the lobby between Wijedasa Rajapakse and Rajitha Senaratne. Coming to the rescue of Rajapakse was Presidential cousin and SLFP MP Nirupama Rajapaksa. She told Senaratne that he should not insult an SLFPer. Later Basil Rajapakse intervened to sort out matters.
Last evening there was speculation that Wijedasa may admit himself at the Jayawardenapura hospital for a medical check up on the day of the voting.
The President was also using emissaries to woo opposition MPs. He was also talking to UNPers through the UNP "democratic" faction that joined earlier. Presidential advisor and MP Basil Rajapaksa said for every Government MP who crossed over, they would take three UNPers, eventually depriving UNP Ranil Wickremesinghe of the post of Opposition Leader.
Ratnapura district parliamentarian Mahinda Rathnatilleke called on the President on Thursday morning and a deal was wrapped up. He crossed over from the UNP to the Government.
Later that afternoon Rathnatilleke appeared at the weekly post Cabinet meeting news briefing at the Department of Information. He claimed he was leaving on his own volition. President Rajapaksa was the only one who could eliminate LTTE terrorism in the country, he said. He claimed that some 20 Tiger guerrilla cadres had infiltrated the City of Colombo to target the Rajapaksa brothers as well as some Cabinet Ministers.
The entry of Rathnatilleke into the Government benches was to see the exit of Justice Minister (non Cabinet rank) Dilan Perera. He was incensed that a man implicated in the killing of a close associate, Nalanda Ellawala, had joined the Government. Perera was in the company of Ellawala, on his way from Colombo to Ratnapura when he was shot dead at Eheliyagoda. The incident took place in 1999. Rathnatilleke is likely to be indicted along with another UNP crossover Susantha Punchinilame, next week for the murder of Ellawala.
Perera quit the SLFP Central Committee to show his protest.
Well known cricketer and Kotte parliamentarian Arjuna Ranatunga had only voiced his intentions to quit the Government when there were pressures on him. His father, Reggie, Governor of the North Western Province was to appeal to him to meet President Rajapaksa. He did and a lengthy discussion ensued with President agreeing to address Ranatunga's grievances.
Ranatunga will be sworn in as a Cabinet Minister soon. It is likely, some of the portfolios of Chamal Rajapaksa will be given to him, though the former cricket captain is eyeing the sports ministry.
Obviously, the UNP was feeling like dropping a vital catch at a cricket match. The UNP had plans to welcome him in parliament by garlanding him.
Prior to his meeting with the President, when asked about his stance, Ranatunga played with a straight bat, to use cricketing parlance.
He said he was not crossing over because he was denied high office. He said he had already given his word and would stick to it. Later, in Parliament trying to persuade Ranatunga to change his mind were colleagues Mervyn Silva and Mahindananda Aluthgamage. The former cricket captain was to tell them that though it was Mangala Samaraweera who introduced him to politics, he was not crossing over for that reason. He said the time had come for him to take a firm decision.
Other surprises in store for Thursday did not materialise. The Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) was to declare its intention to leave. Its Ministers in the Cabinet were due to tender their resignations. Whether the move is the result of the CWC having changed its mind is not clear.
The CWC also had talks with Government leaders. Its leader Arumugam Thondaman met Jeyaraj Fernadopulle, Maithripala Sirisena, Nimal Siripala de silva and Susil Premajayantha. Issues relating to the Central Provincial Council were sorted out. But it is still not clear which way he would go.
The heat is also on the UNP. This week UNP MP Ravi Karunanayake was implicated in an old case in a move which the UNP sees as being connected to tomorrow's vote.
The two main parties - the SLFP and the UNP-led National Congress - were also wooing the JHU.
SLFP frontliners Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, Nimal Siripala de Silva and others held a round of talks with JHU leaders. The meeting took place against the backdrop of reports that the UNP had approached three JHU monk MPs.
Meanwhile, the government's eyes are also on the SLMC. Its leader Rauff Hakeem was due to speak in Parliament on Friday but he was not present. Hakeem who heads the Public Accounts Committee has been at loggerheads with the President over the committee's recommendation for the removal of the Inland Revenue Department Commissioner General. The PAC has decided to write to the Finance Minister asking that the Commissioner Gen be interdicted. JVP parliamentarian Susantha Samarasinghe asked Hakeem whether the letter would go next Friday. Hakeen said, "we don't know what will happen by that day."
Does that mean that he has plans to quit?
As the crossover game, in which integrity, honesty and moral principles have become secondary issues, reaches its finale, the politicians seem to have forgotten the burning questions the people and the country face.