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The Political Column

21st June 1998

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PC polls on greasy pole

By Our Political Correspondent

In a dramatic turn of political events over the week, the government has proposed the postponement of provincial elections because of the serious security situation and in an even more significant move it sought UNP support for it. Though early indications were that the UNP might co-operate with the government in a rare gesture of bipartisanship, the party's policy-making Working Committee on Friday night decided to oppose the government's move.

On Thursday, Leader of the House and Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, and Minister G.L. Peiris met Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe in Parliament to discuss the proposed postponement.

Minister Wickremanayake said the country is facing a major security threat and asked how elections could be held.

Mr. Wickremesinghe said that at least two policemen should be assigned to a polling booth while seeking the assistance of the armed forces to transport ballot boxes to counting centres.

The two ministers said the government was unable to do so due to the prevailing situation and added that adequate security could not be provided to political leaders at election rallies.

The ministers pointed out that almost all the political leaders were facing threats and it would not be possible for them to campaign freely.

After listening to them the UNP leader said he had to put the government's suggestion to the party Working Committee for approval, when it met on Friday.

While assuring that elections would be held before December 31, Minister Peiris said the opposition could nominate one person to work with the governor of each province during the interim period.

Discussing the mechanism for the postponement, the ministers suggested a special provisions law for it.

Since such a provision would be inconsistent with the Constitution it would require a two-third majority, it was pointed out.

The same afternoon Minister Peiris met former Minister A.C.S Hameed for a second round of talks on the matter.

Mr. Hameed suggested that during the interim period, from the date of dissolution of the councils to December 31, the Boards of Ministers in the provinces should continue.

He said it would be similar to a caretaker cabinet which functions after Parliament is dissolved.

Dr. Peiris said he would discuss the suggestion with President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and get back to the UNP.

Mr. Wickremesinghe has also requested the ministers to discuss the matter with the MEP, the JVP and other parties.

But the government is mainly concerned about support from the UNP and is not likely to have serious discussions with the JVP or other smaller parties..

There are different schools of thought in the UNP about the proposal to postpone the elections.

Some are of the view that the government's proposal is a blessing in disguise for the UNP..

They point out that if the UNP loses the elections it could set off a leadership crisis in the party. Thus they think it would be wise to support the government move.

This section believes the UNP should concentrate on a national election rather than provincial. Mr. Wickremesinghe discussed this matter on Thursday, when he visited General Secretary Gamini Atukorale in Kahawatte to pay his last respects to the latter's father E.C.J. Atukorale who died on Tuesday..

Mr. Wickremesinghe was accompanied by advisors such as Charitha Ratwatte, Milinda Moragoda and Rohitha Bogollagama.

It also gave an opportunity for the controversial political broker A.J.M. Muzammil to surface again in UNP circles.

Mr. Muzammil said in his view the UNP should not agree to a postponement. If the government's position was that it could not provide security, the party should suggest that elections be held on a staggered basis. Ballots should be kept without counting in safe custody and the results should be announced only after elections are held in all seven provinces, he suggested.

He feels campaigning could be mainly through the media, without holding rallies.

Some others think the UNP would walk into a government trap if it agrees to a postponement.

In their view the government may go for a snap election in the afterglow and euphoria over a victory by the security forces in strategic Mankulam.

The UNP leadership has also told party chairman and Colombo Mayor Karu Jayasuriya to meet officials of the JVP, NSSP and MEP to seek their views.

He met them on Thursday night.

Meanwhile, President Kumaratunga on Wednesday, after the weekly cabinet meeting, spoke to some of the ministers about her idea to put off elections.

But, she said, she was seeking support from all main parties for this.

The President also had separate discussions with the Tamil parties and the SLMC. The Tamil parties agreed to a postponement.

Supporting the President's proposal, CWC leader S. Thondaman said the LTTE had infiltrated plantation areas and could cause trouble during elections.

He said he believed organised gangs were behind the recent bomb explosions in a Hatton estate and at electricity transformers and telecom centres all over the country.

President Kumaratunga asked Mr. Thondaman whether he could tell the same story to Mr. Wickremesinghe. ":After all you were great friends," she said.

Extension for Police Chief

At the weekly meeting of the ministers, the President put forward a cabinet paper to extend the term of Police Chief W.B. Rajaguru by two months.

She said the IGP had done a great service to the country and government.

Many ministers opposed the move. with Ministers Jeyaraj Fernandopulle and Mangala Samaraweera spearheading the campaign against the IGP.

It was difficult to work with him especially during an election, they complained.

The President disagreed. She said she had looked into all the allegations made by the ministers and felt it would be unfair to remove the police chief on those grounds.

"He has rendered a great service to the country and the government. We can't throw such good people out of their jobs," she said.

"You have to remember that he has to work with police officers who had been recruited during the 17-year rule of the UNP. There are 18,000 such officers. He is compelled to carry out his duties with these people and when you do not want one particular police officer, he has to give another from the lot recruited by the UNP. He is working with limited resources. Hence the demand to remove him is totally unfair," the President added.

In other words, the President was telling her ministers she was not ready to compromise on matters such as this and would not allow anybody to force things down her throat.

Thereafter, the President put forward a new scheme for tenders above Rs. 20 million, in a bid to curb corruption.

According to her proposal all international bidders for tenders above Rs. 20 million should submit their bids through a company listed in the Colombo Stock Exchange.

Though several ministers expressed reservations, the cabinet approved the proposal.

Who hit Lasantha?

The most disturbing incident of the week was the attack by unknown assailants on the residence of Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunga.

Again the pertinent question: Who is behind it?

Through the newspaper and TV, Mr. Wickrematunga has in the past few months led an attack on the AirLanka-Emirates deal, accusing the government of fraud and duplicity.

One main charge is that the government agreed with Emirates Airlines to buy new airbuses at prices above the current market rates.

The media have been asking Who got the extra money, who took the commissions?

Some circles have accused Mr. Wickrematunga of overstepping his boundaries, while others argued that he was well within his territory when he questioned the integrity of the government.

Of course, some observers were of the view that Mr. Wickrematunga always gave a spin, when he posed questions in his TV interviews, to put the government on the defensive and in an embarrassing position.

But in our view, any person should be free to speak his mind, as long as he is within the ambit of the law.

In short any person should be able to put his point of view across in a free and vibrant democracy.

Mr. Wickrematunga had done exactly this.

Though we may not agree with him on some issues, we defend his right to express his views.

At the time of the attack on Mr. Wickrematunga's house, TNL was telecasting one of his Inside Stories on the ethnic crisis and devolution.

Around 11.10 p.m., a group of unknown assailants sprayed bullets at Mr. Wickrematunga's house in Nugegoda.

His driver who was occupying the front room had a close shave while his Pajero was hit by several metal-piercing T-56 bullets.

The assailants struck about 10 minutes after the journalist and his wife returned home after a dinner at Taj Samudra with parliamentarian Ravi Karunanayake. Mr. Wickrematunga had exchanged pleasantries with the Sri Lankan cricketers before he left the hotel.

Soon after the attack, Mr. Wickrematunga telephoned Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. A few minutes later he received a call from Chandana de Silva, Marketing Manager at Emirates expressing satisfaction over the TV programme. Mr. Wickrematunga told him that his house had been attacked a few minutes before.

Mr. de Silva in turn, telephoned UNP parliamentarian Mahinda Samarasinghe and after congratulating him on his contribution to the discussion, informed him of the attack.

Several journalists including Ravaya Editor Victor Ivan, Ukthiya Editor Sunanda Deshapriya and former Presidential Press Secretary Chulawansa Sri Lal arrived at Mr. Wickrematunga's residence to express solidarity with him.

Minister Mangala Samaraweera who was informed by another journalist sent his deputy, Anura Yapa along with his public relations officer.

Mr. Yapa told Mr. Wickrematunga the President had ordered an immediate and impartial investigation into the attack.

But, Mr. Wickrematunga's brother Lal said he felt such an investigation would be futile.

He said on the previous occasion when Mr. Wickrematunga was assaulted nobody was brought before the law, even after the suspects were identified.

In the circumstances, he expressed doubts over the outcome of such an investigation.

Mr. Wickrematunga has blamed the government and said the attack had been carried out on the instructions of a top politician.

In his statement to the police, he has said he suspected top government politicians including some ministers who did not like his exposures and criticism.

However, on Thursday morning, Minister Samaraweera telephoned Mrs. Raine Wickrematunga to inquire about the incident.

Later at the weekly cabinet press briefing Minister Samaraweera condemned the attack while assuring a full-scale investigation by the CID.

Soon after the attack a number of UNP parliamentarians, including Rajitha Senaratne, Sarath Kongahage, Mahinda Samarasinghe and Mervyn de Silva, were seen at Mr. Wickrematunga's residence. Mr. de Silva was seen brandishing a pistol and challenging the PA politicians who he alleged were behind this meticulously planned attack.

Amidst all this, the UNP had another important matter on its hands.

Hameed, Anura and Marapana back Mendis

By Our Political Analyst

An issue that has shaken the UNP for the past year came to a de cisive point on Friday evening, when the party's highest body, the Working Comittee held a three-hour meeting at Sirikotha.

The Working Committee on the recommendation of the Disciplinary Committee, decided to suspend party veteran Wijeyapala Mendis. Those who wanted Mr. Mendis out, thought he would be expelled from the party on Friday evening, but with court action pending, the UNP decided to withhold expulsion until the determination by court. The decision by the Working Committee on Mr. Mendis is seen by most observers as indication that party leader Ranil Wickremasinghe is well in control of the 52-member policy-making body.

The first to speak at Friday's meeting was former Attorney General Tilak Marapone. The veteran lawyer said he had studied the issue fully and felt the Athukorale Committee appointed by the party had gone by the report of the Special Presidential Commission (SPC) rather than by the evidence. Thus the Athukorale report did not address the actual issues involved.

Mr. Marapone said he saw no logic in suspending Mr. Mendis from the party, while, opposing his expulsion from Parliament. It was like being guilty and not guilty at the same time.

Frontliner Anura Bandaranaike, making the strongest plea on behalf of Mr. Mendis, said in principle he was against the SPC Act. He said Mr. Mendis was one of the most senior members whose contribution could not be forgotten or underplayed.

Mr. Bandaranaike charged that a corrupt PA government was using the Mendis issue to cover up its dubious deals.

Former minister A.C.S. Hameed referred to a similar situation in 1972, when the UNP led by Dudley Senanayake wanted to expel J.R. Jayewardene. He and two others opposed that move.

Then in 1994, after the general elections, he fought almost a lone battle on the question of Mr. Wickremasinghe's leadership, he said.

On the same principle, Mr. Hameed said he opposed the motion against Mr. Mendis because he felt the ultimate aim of the committee was to expel him. Nanda Mathew, Dharmadasa Banda and Stanley Kalpage also spoke against the suspension, while Karunasena Kodituwakku and John Amaratunge spoke in favour.

In a brief statement, Mr. Mendis lamented that a party he served faithfully for half a century was now treating him like a political leper.

Party leader Wickremasinghe said Mr.Hameed had disagreed with the Disciplinary Committee and walked out. Referring to what Mr. Marapone described as the illogical stance of suspending Mr. Mendis while opposing his expulsion from Parliament, he said he would give a full explanation later.

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