The Political Column

9th February 1997

PA targets UNP city bastion

By Our Political Correspondent

It's election time once again and the election fever is steadily gripping the whole country. The government hopes to win the election and prove a point - that the people are still with it while the main opposition UNP is trying its level best to hold on to the existing councils in short, to maintain its status quo.

But some people think differently, they are fed up with both these main political parties, since both have miserably failed to address the burning issues of the day.

The local polls will be an acid test for President Chandrika Kumaratunga's government to assess as to how it is faring and whether the people have accepted its policies.

The thinking of the government is that the UNP has not offered the people an acceptable alternative to put the UNP back in office. Hence the people would not want to vote against the government at this juncture and create a major upset.

But the youth of this country are a frustrated lot today, with the government not being able to grasp their thinking. In the circumstances the youth are likely to tow the line of the Marxist JVPers, not having accepted their political doctrine but as a protest against what is happening in the country.

Though the government ministers say the investment climate is favourable, the People's Alliance had so far failed to create adequate employment opportunities for the youth, resulting in frustration and despair among the younger generation. The direct implications are quite tragic with crimes and burglaries increasing at an alarming rate.

So it is the right time for both main political parties to sit together to resolve these issues before it is too late. Inaction of the government in this respect could give rise to another youth insurrection which ultimately would result in loss of precious lives.

At present the government is harping on the state terror perpetrated by the UNP during the 1987 insurrection to attract voters, but the SLFP appears to have forgotten that state terror was unleashed during the 1971 insurrection as well. If the government faces a similar situation in the future what would it do? Would it keep quiet or implement the normal law and stop at that? Can we expect this from a government which used the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) to harass journalists.

It is true that there were excess during the UNP time. At the same time it should be understood that there is a difficulty in monitoring those excesses. These things are happening there today in the North-East areas of the country but are not spoken about much.

Disappearances and extra-judicial killings are still taking place in the strife-ridden North and East, but the government has conveniently forgotten the state terror perpetrated on the people of these areas.

The fault during the UNP regime was that it did not care to hold even a fair inquiry into these and punish the miscreants. So basically there is no big difference between this government and the previous UNP regime as far as the human rights record is concerned.

The UNP had effectively suppressed a JVP insurrection and at present there is no need for the government to unleash state terror in the South. Not so much that this government is conscious of human suffering and is committed to protect the rights of the people.

At the same time, we saw recent reports of President Kumaratunga emphasising that her government would ensure a free and fair election devoid of thuggery and violence.

The main question that arises is as to how far the government would stand by its statement during election time. It is true that during election time the UNP from 1977 to 1994 made use of all state agencies and private government squads to suppress the opposition but the solemn pledge of the PA was to act differently and restore all the rights that the people lost during the UNP regime. However it was evident during the elections held for the country's co.-operative bodies the PA politicians used violence, police power and thuggery against their opponents to grasp power in those institutions.

In these circumstances could anyone take the government's statement seriously until and unless the government proves its true intent by its deeds and not with mere words?

The UNP has also pledged that it would not meet terror with terror. However we have to wait and see whether both the government and the UNP have reformed themselves to be decent and true democrats, to face this contest in a gentlemanly manner. At a recent Cabinet meeting, a senior Minister asked Minister G.L. Peiris as to whether they could secure a majority. He said they could win convincingly. Whether they would maintain the 62 percent they received at the Presidential election is doubtful.

The PA will have to field candidates sans the NDUNLF headed by Minister Srimani Athulathmudali, since the NDUNLF did not agree with the conditions laid down by the PA.

According to party stalwarts the main contributory factors for the NDUNLF to keep away was the reduced number of candidates offered to them and debarring them from speaking on the devolution proposals and the abolition of the Presidency and the failure to fulfil the promises given by the PA. A request by the NDUNLF leadership to go it alone was also turned down by the PA and they have now decided to abstain from entering the fray.

The NDUNLF is likely to make a statement shortly asking the people to cast their votes according to their conscience and choice and they are more likely not to make a specific request to their voters to cast their votes to the People's Alliance. This could further distance the NDUNLF from the PA making more problems for both sides.

However the PA is banking on K. Ganeshalingam, the UNP Mayor who quit the party to contest as an Independent to the Colombo Mayoralty with government backing. The cross-over of Mr. Ganeshalingam is viewed by the PA as a psychological victory to overrun that UNP bastion, the Colombo Municipal Council. But now there appears to be a split in the PA group vehemently opposing the PA's decision to back the independent group headed by Mr. Ganeshalingam.

The conflict would be more severe if the PA supporters who oppose Mr. Ganeshalingam's independent group field another set of independents to contest the Municipality.

The UNP is also facing similar problems with its Ex-Deputy Mayor Maharoof who had petitioned the UNP leader to make him the Mayoral candidate of Colombo for many reasons he had cited.

Mr. Maharoof had also been asked to get 21 members of the CMC as his signatories to substantiate his claim.

However the UNP leadership appears to be firm in its decision to field Karu Jayasuriya as its Mayoral candidate. He is a businessman of high integrity and an experienced administrator.

That means the UNP wants to keep Colombo which is considered a bastion. Even in 1956 after the UNP's crushing defeat at the Parliamentary elections, the UNP regained the Colombo Municipality within six months. On the other hand losing Colombo would mean that the UNP is losing its grip in local politics. More than anything it could be a threat to Ranil Wickremesinghe's leadership.

So UNP should strive hard to keep Colombo which signifies UNP's strength in the city. But the PA wants to break this grip and get power in the city which would make easier for it. A.H.M. Fowzie, one time UNP Mayor of Colombo who crossed over to the United Front is in charge of this task along with Nimal Siripala de Silva. But it is not so easy for them to demolish the UNP bastion in Colombo.

The Indian High Commission is also closely monitoring the developments in the local political arena, though it has no intention of getting involved in internal matters of the country. However it is obvious that the Indians don't want the PA to lose at this crucial juncture when the government is trying to push the devolution package through Parliament. On the other hand, they don't want the UNP to win the elections because they believe that the Sinhala hard liners would not allow the party hierarchy to support any kind of political solution proposed by the government to end the ethnic crisis. In short, they fear a clear UNP victory could ruin the chances of implementing the package and that the Sinhala hardliners in the party would take over the reins preventing a possible political solution for the problem.

At the UNP group meeting held on Tuesday, many things were spoken about the local elections. UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe advised Parliamentarians to be patient until the nominations are over to launch the campaign.

He said it would be possible for them to win the elections and told the members to work hard to get more votes than they polled at the '94 General Elections.

Mr. Wickremesinghe also said he would only approve the nomination papers that are processed according to the accepted procedure of the government.

Gamini Lokuge who spoke at this stage said the President was using the state media to make allegations against the UNP and that the UNP should reply.

Mr. Wickremesinghe said they had no time to reply each and every allegation, but they would do that when it is necessary.

Sarath Kongahage said the President was a lucky lady that she could be compensated twice for the Vijaya assassination.

He said when she was with them in the Sri Lanka Mahajana Party she accused the JVP of killing Vijaya and now she is accusing the UNP. She can get compensation twice over this, he declared.

Gamini Lokuge speaking again said the SLFP was paying compensation for the victims of the 1987-88 insurrection time and said they should do something to the families of the 6000 UNP supporters who died at the hands of the JVP.

But Mr. Wickremesinghe said nothing could be done now, since the Cabinet at that stage decided to pay Rs. 50,000 for each family. There are members of that Cabinet here present today, they could have asked for an enhanced payment at that stage, he said.

When Mr. Lokuge queried about the UNP's silence over the statement made by the President based on the report of the Vijaya Assassination Commission, he was told that they were awaiting a reply from the Premadasa family and since Dulanjalee has replied, the UNP would make a subsequent statement. The statement was finally drafted by a committee comprising Ranil Wickremesinghe, A.C.S. Hameed and K.N. Choksy and issued on Thursday.

While the UNP was mapping out its strategy, Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte held a meeting with representatives of several organisations and heads of several state corporations to spell out the government's media campaign at the forthcoming local elections.

It was attended by some students attached to the Colombo University who supported the PA at the '94 General Elections.

General Ratwatte, addressing the participants said the campaign should be carried out on a district basis and the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation would give every assistance.

The University students who were present said when there was a swing towards the PA in 1994 they could only get a majority of 350,000 votes.

When Anuruddha Ratwatte suggested that the government would get at least 2 1/2 lakhs more at this local elections, the students challenged the Minister's statement and said the youth would definitely vote JVP this time.

They said the government had antogonised the people who were with it in 1994, including journalists, artists and human rights activists.

The students pointed out that the labour unrest was raging day by day over the unjust manner in which the Steel Corporation and the Gas Company were privatised and on top of all these the government was trying to hand over the QEQ to P&O. By these actions the students pointed out the government had pushed the youth towards the JVP.

They also spoke about the government's contradictory statements over the assassination of Vijaya Kumaratunga.

The students argued that the Commission appointed by the government had failed to bring to book at least a single culprit from the previous regime. Minister Ratwatte said through the Batalanda Commission they could expose the UNP.

Ultimately General Ratwatte requested them to work for the elections and assured them adequate protection, but the students pointed out that the police and other security agencies were not very happy with the government.

Minister Ratwatte outlining the strategy said it would be difficult to talk at any forum, including the Cabinet since everything leaks out to the press.

Even Cabinet papers cannot be sent in advance since several ministers in connivance with the UNP were trying to defeat the government.

Hence he said Cabinet papers were given only five minutes before the Cabinet meeting.

"Even on the days the government debates the motion to extend the state of emergency we are nervous until the last moment since we have a very slim majority in Parliament."

However the students pointed out that it would be a tough game for the PA.

But the government is determined to win the elections. The strategies would be to plant pro-government people in buses and trains to initiate dialogues favourable for the government, to have propaganda over independent TV channels and to have a teledrama on Batalanda vividly portraying the terror unleashed during the UNP regime from 1987.

As things stand at that, as far as the local elections are concerned, the government is trying hard to push the political package through the Select Committee to be presented in Parliament soon.

The main aim of the package is to introduce Regional Councils with executive power vested in the governor and one of the significant features in the proposed Regional Councils system which would replace the Provincial Councils is the Executive Committee system initiated by the UNP.

It was supported by the Tamil parties and simultaneously approved by the President and the Attorney General has subsequently formulated a draft, setting out details of the proposed Executive Committee system.

According to the Attorney General's paper, the exact number of ministers for each region will be specified in a schedule, and the number would depend on the population, area and resources of the region.

Though the executive power is vested in the governor it will be exercised through the Executive Committees in the region.

The number of ministers each party is entitled for, would be determined by the Commissioner of Elections and this would minimise polarisation and politics of confrontation since both the winning party and the opposition would be effectively involved in the administration of the affairs of the region.

Every member of a Regional Council will be involved directly in the administration and their preferences will be considered when appointed to committees.

Though this system is based on the Donoughmore system there is an interesting contrast between the two systems. In fact the new system operates in a more practical manner than the earlier one.

Apart from the proposed political package the government is closely examining the possibility of setting up a regulatory body to monitor the progress and affairs of the privatised institutions which have direct dealings with the people such as the Gas Company.

The government feels that even the private sector should not increase prices of consumer products arbitrarily without any proper reasoning. For this the government is closely studying the United States and British experiences in such matters. For this the British High Commission has expressed its willingness to help the government providing the material as to how the regulatory bodies are functioning in Britain. As an initial step towards this the government intends to give more teeth to the Fair Trading Commission.

President Kumaratunga has also felt the need to introduce regulatory bodies as the government proceeds along with its privatisation programme and the government is likely to obtain World Bank and IMF aid for these projects.

It appears now that the government is making headway in several spheres though it has failed to address the most burning issues in the country.

However with the dawn of the 50th anniversary of independence the President on Tuesday made a fervent appeal to the youth to commit themselves to build a country with peace and prosperity as we enter the 21st century.

On Wednesday she hosted a special independence dinner for the ministers and the ambassadors and put off the usual Cabinet meeting for Thursday.

The President observed that almost all the ministers were present at the dinner except for two - S.B. Dissanayake and Richard Pathirana.

On Thursday when the ministers were at the Cabinet meeting she queried as to why the two ministers did not turn up for the independence dinner on Wednesday.

Both Mr. Dissanayake and Mr. Pathirana said they were busy with work for the local polls and they could not leave those people behind and come.

In fact Armugam Thondaman was also with S.B. Dissanayake that night discussing matters pertaining to the local elections in the hill country.

The President however was not satisfied with the explanation given by the ministers. She told them that they should have attended the dinner.

"When the President invites, you must accept, there is something called manners."

Obviously she wanted her ministers to be more polite in their dealings with the Presidential office as well as obey her orders so that she could maintain discipline even at Cabinet level.

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