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The Political Column

12th July 1998

Attack on Anura: UNP in turmoil

By our Political Correspondent

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The government hopes to throw a new challenge to the opposition UNP by calling for a Presidential Election in February next year.

The thinking is clear. The People's Alliance probably believes that it is not popular enough as a party to score a clear victory at this stage. Hence it has pinned a lot of hope on the successful outcome of the war in the North and the East.

At the same time, PA insiders are of the view that President Chandrika Kumaratunga could still win an election, and that the UNP has failed to offer any effective alternative to her government.

On the military front, the government's main objective is to link the Northern peninsula with the rest of the country and restore the status quo that prevailed before the Eelam war.

For the PA, winning the war in Mankulam could mean winning an extension to their six-year term.

President Kumaratunga recently told party organisers she was ready to face an election but she knew most MPs were not ready owing to problems such as the economy and the rising cost of living.

At provincial level, government leaders feel they have a slight edge over the UNP in the North Central Province and the Western Province but in other areas, the outcome is uncertain.

But a Presidential election would be a different exercise. PA strategists feel President Kumaratunga has been able to maintain her charisma and support to defeat UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe who is at present saddled with many an internal problem.

The government may be tempted to use the UNP's old strategy by creating disharmony within the opposition party.

The first such salvo on the Wijeyapala Mendis issue appears to be working and now there is some dissension within the UNP over the issue.

It seems the UNP's strategy and timing on this issue may have been at fault.

The Special Presidential Commission of Inquiry Law was a UNP creation. During its 17-year regime, this was used effectively to put the opposition in disarray.

The first victim was Sirima Bandaranaike who was found guilty of abuse of power and stripped of her civic rights.

The UNP later tried to undo this law when it saw the PA government was using it against the opposition.

Former Minister Wijeyapala Mendis and some of the top bureaucrats of the UNP regime were roped in.

This caused disunity within the UNP and matters are now being complicated over the controversy involving Anura Bandaranaike. The government is clearly trying to get political mileage from this.

Internal squabbles and political bickering in the SLFP when the party was in the opposition had helped the UNP remain in power for 17 years. Now the same card is being played though roles are reversed.

Up to now this strategy has worked. At the UNP parliamentary group meeting on Wednesday, two of the frontliners who had crossed over to the UNP during the D.B. Wijetunga regime - Anura Bandaranaike and Rajitha Senaratne - clashed head on with Mervyn Silva preparing the ground for it. Dr. Senaratne and Mr. Silva were one time supporters of President Kumaratunga and crossed over to the UNP after differences in their Bahujana Nidahas Party.

They were close associates of Anura Bandaranaike too. During the debate on the Galle Port tender, they teamed up against Minister M.H.M. Ashraff to bring in a no-confidence motion.

But now for Mr. Bandaranaike his friends have turned sour. It was Mr. Silva who started the barrage against Mr. Bandaranaike.

Mr. Silva first praised party leader Wickremesinghe and said it would not be difficult for the UNP to win an election under his leadership.

Mr. Silva then hit out at the PA and charged that President Kumaratunga had given false promises to the masses.

He said the UNP had maintained discipline among its members from the time of D.S. Senanayake and seldom had factions.

"If we allow various camps to come up within the party there will be a breakdown in party discipline," he warned.

Mr. Silva said various camps were emerging within the UNP and called for urgent steps to stem the rot. He said party members could not be allowed to make statements at their own whims and fancies or for their own benefit.

He said that from the Tawakkal debate upto the debate on AirLanka, the UNP maintained that the PA regime was corrupt.

However, there is a recent statement by a member of the UNP that President Kumaratunga, Premier Sirima Bandaranaike and Minister Lakshman Jayakody were the only leaders in the PA who were not corrupt.

Mr. Silva nor any UNP member should make such statements when the party was taking a general stand that the PA regime was corrupt.

He called on the leadership to take disciplinary action against those who said what was contrary to party policy, irrespective of their background.

He stressed that discipline could not be enforced only on those who came from a poor rural background.

Insisting that there should not be discrimination when dealing with party members on disciplinary matters, Mr. Silva called upon the UNP leadership to take action against the English educated elite who were going against party policy.

"I do not know who made the statement, whether it was A, B or C but we must maintain party discipline," Mr. Silva insisted.

Then Mr. Bandaranaike rose to clarify the position. He said it was he who had made the statement which was challenged by Mr. Silva.

"In the past I have been highly critical of President Kumaratunga despite being a member of the same family.

But I can't level charges of corruption against anybody unless there is substantial proof."

At this Dr. Senaratne entered the fray. He pointed out it was Mr. Bandaranaike who had tabled a letter in Parliament on the controversy involving the US firm Evans International.

"You made a subsequent statement to the media when the President allegedly used her influence to expunge that letter from the Hansard."

"The Evans letter states that the PA administration is corrupt from top to bottom," Dr. Senaratne said.

"Today you are saying something else. We should do either UNP politics or PA politics," he said.

Referring to a statement reported to have been made by Mr. Bandaranaike that members of his family were honest and not corrupt, Dr. Senaratne said there was a no-confidence motion against Ms. Bandaranaike, too.

At this stage Mr. Wickremesinghe intervened, requesting Dr. Senaratne to wind up since there were many speakers.

Dr. Senaratne continuing said that President Kumaratunga ran away when the UNP leader challenged her to hold the Presidential election before the scheduled time.

"We cannot allow anybody to take the party as a joke or weaken it. We must remember that many have sacrificed much for the UNP. If we whitewash President Kumaratunga, they will blame us," he said.

Mr. Bandaranaike once again rose a speak. He said he had known Mr. Wickremesinghe from their childhood.

"There is nobody here who had such an intimate relationship as we. I voted for Mr. Wickremesinghe at the contest for the opposition leader's post. I voted for him and those who did not support him at that stage are now praising him," Mr. Bandaranaike said.

This statement by Mr. Bandaranaike raised a hornet's nest, but Mr. Wickremesinghe intervened to stop all of them.

"You know that I voted for you," Mr. Bandaranaike told Mr. Wickremesinghe.

Mr. Wickremesinghe smiled in acknowledgment saying there was no doubt about that.

Though many wanted to speak on the matter, the party leader called upon Mr. Ronnie de Mel.

Many thought it would be another Ronnie-Anura dual. But Mr. de Mel diverted the debate to another topic - the government's proposal to put off elections. He described it as a coup. "We should oppose this along with other parties or on our own. It should be the first step towards toppling the government democratically. We should appoint a committee to plan our strategy," he said.

Former Speaker M.H. Mohamed agreed, calling on the party to make an official statement in Parliament. The group accepted the proposal.

Mr. Wickremesinghe who spoke at length said the government was fielding weak candidates and he felt this was an indication that the provincial polls would be put off after receiving nominations.

He pointed out it was the only occasion where the Mahanayakes had agreed with G.L. Peiris after he became a minister.

"President Kumaratunga is scared to take a decision. When we last met they talked about Provincial elections, but now they don't talk about anything. I don't think they will hold any election. They are afraid of the public reaction," he said.

He also accused the government of using the carrot and stick to influence the independent media.

Thus the party could not depend on the independent media and needed to build its own news network through the cluster system now operative in the UNP.

He said the party had taken a difficult decision on its chief whip Wijeyapala Mendis. "It's over now, but the newspapers are keeping the subject alive," he said.

Mr. Wickremesinghe said that since Provincial Councils had been dissolved and party members would have no roles in development work, they could get down to full time work for the party. UNP lawyer Henry Jayamaha said the postponement of elections would violate the Constitution.

He said emergency regulations could not over-ride a provision in Article 16 in the Constitution.

Though the group was expected to elect a new chief whip, it did not happen.

Insiders say, various news emerged including Tyronne Fernando and W.J.M. Lokubandara, but the party did not take a decision on Wednesday and Mr. Mendis was significantly seen seated in the whip's chair in Parliament as usual.

The attack on Mr. Bandaranaike at the UNP group meeting again shows that in politics there are no permanent friends, only permanent self-interest. Dr. Senaratne and Mr. Silva were friends of Mr. Bandaranaike. Mr. Silva had joined the UNP along with Mr. Bandaranaike and had been one of his staunchest supporters. But Mr. Bandaranaike's visit to Hambantota to participate in some meetings of Mr. Silva's rival, Sajith Premadasa, upset the close affiliation.

The attack on Mr. Bandaranaike figured again in the dabate on the emergency on the same day. Sarath Kongahage had taken on Ms. Bandaranaike and referred to her as "PM in a wheelchair and living on public dole".

Anuruddha Ratwatte, Deputy Minister of Defence was not present to close the debate and had assigned the task to Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, who in recent times has come out as a hard hitting debator.

He followed Sarath Ranawake who closed the debate for the opposition. In recent times, Mr. Ranawake has impressed the House as a sober, sensible and impressive speaker. He took the government to task and charged that the war had only brought one result - the creation of a new millionaire class which had amassed huge wealth on the purchase of arms.

Minister Fernandopulle went straight into the debate and gave it a political twist and thrust while UNP's Kegalle District MP, Farook kept screaming "answer our charges". He ignored the request and spoke of the developments in the UNP parliamentary group in the morning.

He took on Mr. Silva who denied having made any charges against Mr. Bandaranaike. When Minister Fernandopulle referred to Mr. Bandaranaike as deputy leader of the UNP, Mr. Silva even went to the extent of correcting him and saying that he was "co-leader". Some of the UNP MPs were surprised by the position taken by both Mr. Silva and Dr. Senaratne inside Parliament. They maintained that Mr. Bandaranaike must remain in the UNP and would not be handed over to the government. Mr. Kongahage, however, was firm and said he stood by what he said about Ms. Bandaranaike. Minister Fernandopulle in a sarcastic reply said, "Bandaranaikes do not write bogus deeds".

Meanwhile different stories are still being told on whether Mr. Bandaranaike and Mr. Hameed were removed from the nomination board of the party.

The TNL was the first to break the news. It said that the removal was carried out by the leader on a request made by back-benchers.

Party Secretary, Gamini Atukorale, however, had a different version. He told the SLBC that Mr. Hameed and Mr. Bandaranaike were not on the nomination board. There seems to be some interest amongst the Muslims over this issue, because U.L.M. Mohideen, MP for Digamadulla, speaking on the emergency debate said, "if you remove Mr. Hameed, Mr. Mohamed, Mr. Mendis and Mr. Bandaranaike, you will learn a lesson in this country's politics. You will learn a lesson, I am telling you". It is very difficult to understand why Mr. Mohideen who is a sober, senior Muslim personality made this serious observation.

The UNP has still not come out of the crisis which followed Mr. Mendis' suspension from the party. The signature campaign among the MPs to expel those who declined to vote has ended without much support. Obviously they seem to be disturbed by recent developments which have given the country the impression that there is a split in the party.

Mr. Wickremesinghe's one time ardent supporter and confidante, Mr. Hameed, is now being identified by some sections of the media as the 'leader' of the rebel group. It is said that Mr. Hameed, who normally takes part in the deliberations of the parliamentary group meeting was only a silent spectator at the last one.

Another sensitive issue came up when Matara District Parliamentarian Lakshman Yapa Abeywardene raised a question about the government's plan to phase out the Pension Scheme for Public Servants.

Mr. Wickremesinghe said a serious situation could arise from such a move, pointing out it would mean deprivation of pension rights for Security Forces, Police and even disabled soldiers and the families of troops killed in battle.

He said the party would raise this matter in Parliament.

The UNP group also considered a no-confidence motion against Minister Mangala Samaraweera on the Credit Card issue.

Dr. Senaratne tabled this motion.

Mr. Samaraweera is seeking an early date for the debate in Parliament.

He has requested several ministers to speak in his defence.

Minister S.B. Dissanayake agreed while talking to his ministerial colleague in the lobby of Parliament. The request also went to Minister Mahinda Rajapakse. He smiled but did not agree or disagree.

In another significant development, Cricket Board and the Selectors are coming under heavy fire from the state media over the dropping of veteran Roshan Mahanama from the national team for the current England tour.

It is believed that the state media got a directive from presidential media advisor Sanath Gunetilleke to hit out against the exclusion of Mahanama.

State Television Rupavahini interviewed many personalities, including former Cricket Board Chief Upali Dharmadasa, on the matter.

Rupavahini is expected to run a similar programme tomorrow.

Meanwhile, President Kumaratunga has written to Sports Minister S.B. Dissanayake expressing her displeasure over the BCCSL decision to get down World Tel to cover the recent Nidahas Trophy triangular. She said it was against the normal practice to get an organisation whose dealings with Sri Lankan officials have become a subject of inquiry by the authorities.

Meanwhile, political circles are buzzing over the whereabouts of the President. Some say she has gone to London on a private visit but others ask whether she is holidaying in the Maldives with her children. After all she needs a break, quipped a political wag.

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