The Political Column
14th March 1999
Time for political googlies
By our Political Correspondent
To an average Sri Lankan, politics is an exciting subject. It has become the pastime of many Sri Lankans. What comes next to politics is cricket. At times, one-day cricket surpasses politics. But it is rather difficult to assess how an average Sri Lankan would react to politics in cricket.
Elections to the Board of Control for Cricket in Sri Lanka are also dominating news these days along with the battle for the provincial councils.
The contest for the presidency of the cricket board has drawn extra attention because one of the contenders is President Kumaratunga's uncle Clifford Ratwatte. Although a candidate has to secure only 125 votes to be elected to this much coveted position, the contest this time has assumed political characteristics with the battle being described as one between the PA and the UNP.
The other candidate, Thilanga Sumathipala, the incumbent president is known to be a PA supporter, but he has now to mobilise opposition support in the battle with Clifford Ratwatte, who is the president of the Nationalized Services Cricket Association.
Moves to find a formidable candidate to fight Mr. Sumathipala at the March 28 cricket board elections got under way with the previous board president Upali Dharamadasa and Presidential media advisor Sanath Gunathilaka meeting and planning strategies at a lawyer's residence in Kotte. Armed with presidential blessings, the duo with the help of relatives of Mr. Ratwatte persuaded him to contest the elections.
Mr. Ratwatte who is the chairman of the Sri Lanka Tea Board was unseated by an election petition after having won the Balangoda parliamentary seat in 1965.
Mr. Ratwatte who has not played much first class cricket sought Sports Ministry approval to contest the presidency as the regulations require that only candidates with experience of playing a number of first class matches are eligible to run for the elections.
But Sports Minster S. B. Dissanayake was away from the country, a serious set back for the Ratwatte camp.
When he arrived two days before the March 5 closing date for nominations he proceeded to Hanguranketha in the early hours of Thursday and the Minister was in Nuwara Eliya the whole of Friday, March 5.
Mr. Ratwatte contacted Mr. Dissanayake over the phone in Hanguranketha and told him about his decision to contest the presidency. Mr. Ratwatte also told him that he had already submitted a letter to the Ministry for approval.
Mr. Dissanayake told his wife to direct the Sports Ministry secretary to issue the approval letter to Mr. Ratwatte.
On Friday, Mr. Ratwatte arrived at the cricket board headquarters at Maitland Place along with Abu Fuard, a former national cricketer and administrator, to hand in his nominations. When they were climbing the steps to the first floor, they met Sri Lanka's Vice Captain Aravinda de Silva and exchanged some pleasantries with him. After handing in nominations, the Cricket Board's Chief Executive Officer Dhammika Ranatunga told Mr. Clifford Ratwatte that he wanted to have a private chat with him. Mr. Fuard excused himself and left the room. After 30 minutes Mr. Ratwatte came out of the room an angry man.
He later told friends that Sri Lankan Captain Arjuna Ranatunga walked into the room followed by Aravinda de Silva when he was talking to Dhammika Ranatunga. Arjuna Ranatunga had asked Mr. Ratwatte why he wanted to contest the elections. Mr. Ratwatte told him he took the decision after many cricket clubs and lovers of the game persuaded him to contest the presidency.
Arjuna then asked Mr. Ratwatte why he did not contest earlier elections. Mr. Ratwatte told him he would only contest when he wanted to do so. The captain then said Mr. Ratwatte would have difficulties in working with the committee.
Apparently angered by these remarks, Mr. Ratwatte told Arjuna to concentrate on the game and leave administration to others.
In the meantime the incumbent president is said to have suffered a blow in his efforts to get UNP support for his candidacy.
It appears the UNP has decided not to get involved in cricket board politics.
Beside cricket, there are so many other battles hotting up in the local political scene. The bitterest among them is the battle between Ministers A. H. M. Fowzie and M. H. M. Ashraff.
The latest dispute arose when the Cultural Affairs Ministry tried to restore the licence of a blacklisted tour operator to Mecca.
The tour operator's licence had been suspended after it was alleged that he had left more than 30 Haj pilgrims stranded in Jeddah.
The tour operator also took legal action against the Ministry decision and the next hearing is due sometime in April (after the Haj festival).
In the meantime the tour operator had met Mr. Fowzie and sought his help to get his licence back. Mr. Fowzie then spoke to the Ministry of Cultural Affairs which agreed to restore the licence on condition that the tour operator withdrew his case.
Mr. Ashraff who has been appointed to oversee Haj arrangements on behalf of the government this year lost his temper when he heard about the developments. He immediately sought an appointment with President Kumaratunga to explain his position. he told the President he would resign as the minister in charge of Haj this year if the licence was restored.
The President contacted Cultural Affairs Minister Lakshman Jayakody and advised him not to continue with moves to restore the licence. The matter is now in abeyance and Cultural Affairs Ministry officials have sought the advice of the Attorney General's Dept. on the matter because the tour operator had already withdrawn the case. Though the matter is now in a stalemate situation, the battle between the two Muslim ministers rages on.
The political battle for five provincial councils is perhaps the most talked about topic today though provincial councils have little meaning for the ordinary citizens of this country.
On the sideline of the political battle, the Elections Commissioner had to wage a legal battle over the elections date.
When the matter came before the Supreme Court, Solicitor General K.C. Kamalasabesan submitted that the commissioner had duly fixed the date of elections, taking into account the court ruling on January 27 and the relevant election laws.
He urged the court to relax the time frame stipulated in the judgment so that the commissioner could fix a fresh date.
The Supreme Court on Tuesday directed the commissioner to inform it before Thursday of a new date. The commissioner wasted no time. He arranged a meeting of all parties and fixed April 6 as the election date. K.N. Choksy, counsel for the UNP, argued it was only through a parliamentary move that the date could be changed.
Some analysts and the state-run media interpreted the UNP's stance as a move to oppose government initiatives to change the April 1 elections date which falls on Maundy Thursday, a day before Good Friday. This has caused concern in the UNP as the party believed such an interpretation would lead to the party incurring the wrath of the Catholics.
When the UNP working committee met, Rohitha Bogollagama urged the party to issue a statement, giving the correct picture.
Supporting him was W. J. M. Lokubandara who said this could create problems for the UNP among the Catholics.
Party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe agreed but said he preferred to use election platforms to explain the party's position.
Colombo's Archbishop Nicholas Marcus Fernando had a word of thanks for President Kumaratunga for taking steps to change the elections date.
The Archbishop in a statement also hailed the ruling of the Supreme Court, describing it as a judgment in the interests of the people. He also thanked the Attorney-General and the Elections Commissioner. "It has been a victory for the people, a sign of true democracy, also an example where law serves the people and not vice-versa," the Archbishop said.
Some political analysts praised the President's prudence saying she was able to defuse what was turning into a massive build up against the government.
One analyst described it as a victory for the President.
Bouquets apart, the President also came up for harsh criticism by other parties for closing the door of Temple Trees on them when delegates turned up on Thursday for a meeting of the newly-formed Election Monitoring Committee with President Kumaratunga presiding.
The meeting did not take place as scheduled. Instead, the delegates were asked to meet an additional secretary at the Presidential Secretariat. Angered by the non-reception at the gates, the JVP delegate said he had not come there to meet anybody else but the President and went away. When some others contacted the additional secretary, they were told the meeting could not take place because the parties had not submitted proposals to be considered by the election monitoring committee.
Later in the day, the government as a damage control measure issued a statement, putting the blame on the political parties for not submitting proposals as agreed on March 4.
At the UNP working committee on Wednesday, John Amaratunga raised an issue relating to the monitoring committee. He questioned the party's decision to continue in the monitoring committee when the President and the government ignored undertakings given to the political parties for a free and fair election.
Mr. Amaratunga said that contrary to the decision of the monitoring committee to pull down the banners and cut-outs, PA candidates are continuing to put up posters and erect huge cut-outs of candidates and the President. In the circumstances, Mr. Amaratunga said the party should get out of the committee rather than waste time.
Kegalle district parliamentarian Manod Wijeratne also said there was little meaning in sitting in a committee that had no purpose. Most of the UNP members felt President Kumaratunga was trying to save her own skin against accumulated pressure coming from the international community in the wake of Wayamba misdeeds.
UNP General Secretary Gamini Atukorale, who represents the party in the monitoring committee did not agree with taking drastic measures. He said the President had asked all parties to come up with proposals. and called on the working committee to follow up with recommendations.
Karunasena Kodituwakku said the UNP should submit its recommendations with a deadline for implementation. This was endorsed by the party.
Rajitha Senaratne said the UNP need not withdraw from the committee but warned that they should be careful because the president was playing a political game to satisfy the international community. He urged the party to expose the President while being in the committee.
Mr. Wickremesinghe suggested that a committee be appointed to come up with proposals to be submitted them at the election monitoring committee. Subsequently a five member committee comprising John Amaratunga, Gamini Atukorale, Daya Pelpola, Rohitha Bogollagama and Daham Wimalasena was appointed in this regard.
This committee immediately got into action and decided that the general secretary should urge the government to implement the UNP proposal to delegate more powers to the elections commissioner, though this proposal had been rejected by the President as half-baked legislation.
The other proposal called for the use of state resources in the ruling party's election campaign. They said no government vehicle should released for election work of the PA and if any such vehicle was used in the campaign, heads of department and ministry secretaries should be made accountable. Thirdly, the committee said the government should empower the elections commissioner to cancel an election of any polling station where there was sufficient evidence to believe that the elections had been rigged.
The UNP working committee after a 20-minute session held a joint meeting with the parliamentary group at the Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya headquarters in Kotte.
Apart from the upcoming provincial elections, the other main topic discussed here was the May Day rally.
Mr. Wickremesinghe appointed a committee to handle the provincial council elections.
Working committee member Rohitha Bogollagama suggested the party should hold its May Day rally in Colombo this year because that could help continue the momentum after the provincial council elections. The UNP organised its last May Day rally in Colombo in 1993 but it was not held because President Premadasa was killed by a suicide bomber when the UNP procession was in progress. Mr. Wickremesinghe however, had other ideas. He asked members why the rally should not be held in Galle with the southern provincial council elections around the corner. With many members supporting this idea, the party agreed to hold the May Day rally in Galle.
Stressing the need for the revamping of the organisational structure in the south, Mr. Wickremesinghe suggested active grassroots committees be set up replacing the district organisations.
Alick Aluvihare sought the permission of the party leader to replace former deputy minister Wijeratne Banda by Dambulla MP Jinadasa to carry out an active campaign in Matale. Mr. Wickremesinghe said this could be decided at local level.
While the UNP was striving to emerge as a credible government in waiting some UNP supporters had put the party into a difficult situation by clashing with PA supporters in the hills. The Navalapitiya incident in which a PA supporter was killed is a case in point. This incident has reminded the people of the Nalanda Ellawala episode during the last local government elections which the PA won handsomely.
Later on Thursday, the police chief ordered the arrest of UNP's Kandy district MP Cader Hajiar and its main candidate of the Central Province, Keheliya Rambukwella, and several others. Senior lawyers Daya Perera and Hemantha Warnakulasuriya went to Kandy on Friday morning to produce Keheliya Rambukwella and Cader Hadjiar before the Magistrate. The two politicians and other suspects were remanded till March 26.
This and other such incidents elsewhere had also dealt a blow to the party's 'save democracy' campaign.
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