The Political Column

23rd January 1999

Short cut to peace or power

By our Political Correspondent

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Opposition UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe in a calculated move on Wednesday made a historic statement in parliament, expressing his willingness to cooperate with the government in its attempts to enact a new constitution if it could be the panacea for the ills of the country.

Also in a letter written to President Chandrika Kumaratunga later in the day, Mr. Wickremesinghe extended the UNP's support to bring the constitutional reforms in parliament, though he said the party believed that the ethnic problem could not be solved through the government's proposals. " But since you don't have an alternative, we would not stand in its way," he said, expressing his views on the reforms package.

However, Mr. Wickremesinghe's pledge to support the government did not come without strings. He laid down a condition. He said Ms. Kumaratunga's party should support a future UNP government in introducing a new constitution if the PA failed to bring in peace with the proposed constitutional reforms.

Mr. Wickremesinghe's statement and the letter to the President indicate the UNP is trying to make the President answerable to parliament. It also points to a marked shift in the party's earlier stance which treated the abolition of the executive presidency and the constitutional reforms including the devolution package as two different issues as opposed to the PA position of linking the two. The UNP's new stance suggests a 180 degree turn and the party is now trying to be more flexible in a bid to convince the outer-world, that it would support a reasonable solution proposed by the government.

The UNP also seems to have realised that it would be difficult to come back to office under the present executive presidential system which has been designed to give added advantage to the incumbent president.

When the incumbent president declares his or her intention to go in for a fresh mandate, he or she would have the advantage of using state resources and the governmental machinery since the cabinet as well as the parliament were still functioning, enjoying all the privileges.

It was due to President D.B. Wijetunga's arbitrary decision to hold parliamentary elections before the Presidential elections that led to the change of government in 1994. Aware of this advantage, President Kumaratunga called for the presidential elections first and scored a convincing victory.

The UNP thinks that Mr. Wickremesinghe is a good and a high quality commodity but unmarketable due to poor packaging. Mr. Wickremesinghe's policies are not wrapped with an eye-catching or pleasing political rhetoric, but with realistic political theory which failed to appeal to a majority of the voters. Besides, he also does not possess a personality or charisma that woo the common man. One could argue that President J. R. Jayewardene also did not possess these qualities. But President Jayewardene adroitly adapted himself to the indigenous milieu.

Mr. Wickremesinghe has a reputation as a good administrator, good manager and good schemer, who could do much for this country. He has a vision to make Sri Lanka a better country and its economy sound. But what is lacking in him is the capability to instill confidence in others around him and the party men. It should be noted that some partymen doubted Mr. Wickremesinghe's ability to win elections. Confidence is something which comes with political maturity and long experience.

The constant complaints of the UNPers was that most of the members who were close to Mr. Wickremesinghe did not know where they stand with him. His failure is that he tried the Jayewardene tactics whilst being in the opposition tactics which cannot be used effectively in such conditions.

President Jayewardene's shrewdness was evident more in acts he directed while in office than in moves he made while in opposition. One can recall how he failed in his attempt to join the United Front government with the intention of destroying the left in 1973 and when he tried to use Anura Bandaranaike for the same purpose by promising him the UNP would not field a candidate for the Kalawewa by-election if he were to come forward as a candidate. Mr. Jayewardene also had to face opponents in the calibre of Colvin R. de Silva, Felix Dias Bandaranaike and N.M. Perera.

However, to match the political experience and acumen of Mr. Wickremesinghe who had been groomed by J.R. Jayewardene, there is hardly any person in the government.

Yet, it cannot be denied that Mr. Wickremesinghe rose to his present position without much fight or opposition. All the positions he has held so far have fallen on his lap largely because of fortuitous circumstances.

He lost to Gamini Dissanayake when he contested the post of leader of the opposition in 1994. Mr. Dissanayake came back to the UNP after leaving the party in 1993 with the aborted impeachment move against President R. Premadasa. During the impeachment crisis, Mr. Wickremesinghe stood by Mr. Premadasa and was able to muster the support of the backbenchers and the old guard of the UNP. He became the leader of the party after Mr. Dissanayake was killed in a bomb blast in Colombo.

His critics within the party say that since becoming the party leader he has lost eleven major elections. But even these critics agree that Mr. Wickremesinghe possesses a wealth of political and administrative experience which can constructively be used in nation-building. It is this political acumen that is evident in his latest move said to have been taken after a careful study of the present political trends in the country. Behind his pledge of support for government could be a move to keep his party flock together amid reports that some MPs were planning to back the Crossover Bill. If so, the latest move is an attempt to outwit the dissidents such as Sarath Amunugama, Wijeyapala Mendis, Nanda Mathew, Susil Moonasinghe and Chula Bandara who left the party to join the PA in the hope of forming a national government.

If the UNP provides the necessary two thirds majority to enact the new constitution, the Crossover Bill would become redundant. If this happens, the fate of the UNP rebels would be in the balance. Their position could be more vulnerable in the event of a Supreme Court ruling against them.

What would be the role of these dissidents in the present circumstances? Will they go back to the UNP or will they remain in the PA as a splinter group of the UNP? Will they be accommodated by either of these parties at the next general elections? These are the questions many analysts ask.

But more than outwitting the rebels, there is another important aspect in the Wickremesinghe move he is preparing the UNP to face the general elections in August.

If the government accepts Mr. Wickremesinghe's friendly overtures and take a step forward to amend the constitution to bring in new reforms, the President would invariably be compelled to abolish the executive presidency and perhaps accede to the UNP demands of setting up of independent commissions for elections, public service and police.

If one thinks hypothetically that the UNP and the PA join hands in promulgating a new constitution before August, it could pave the way for a new government through a general elections under the new constitution. If they fail to reach an agreement before August, both parties could agree for a referendum to extend the life of parliament for a limited period in a bid to bring in the new constitutional reforms and then go for elections. Therefore, it could be said that Mr. Wickremesinghe is on a short cut to grab power without waiting for five long years.

At a joint meeting of the UNP working committee and the parliamentary group on Monday, former finance minister Ronnie de Mel stressed the need to make the president answerable to parliament or to abolish the executive presidency. He said that the UNP should introduce a bill in parliament to abolish the executive presidency in return for its support and then compel the government to introduce independent commissions for elections, police and public service and the media and the judiciary.

Mr. de Mel also stressed the need to unify the party and to invite the rebels back to the fold. He said: "Even people who shot me should be taken in." But when someone said he was already inside, Mr. de Mel said he was only talking about the people outside. In other words, he wants to bring all the dissidents, including one time party strongman Sirisena Cooray and deputy minister H.R. Piyasiri.

The Senanayake flag bearer, Rukman Senanayake, also stressed the need to take Mr. Cooray back into the party. Mr. Senanayake who thinks that Mr. Cooray has given his best to the party, went to the extent of offering his working committee seat to accommodate Mr. Cooray. Mr. Wickremesinghe reportedly responded to the proposal with a sarcastic smile.

However, what is significant in the Senanayake statement is it was perhaps the first time Mr. Senanayake had spoken his heart out. Many members were supportive of Mr. Senanayake's view, but none wanted to come out openly.

At the beginning of the meeting, Mr. Wickremesinghe warned those members who were having talks with UNP rebels. "Anyone participating in such discussions should obtain prior permission from the party leadership," he said. Backing him was Matara MP Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena who even before Mr. Wickremesinghe concluded his speech, was on his feet to condemn the secret talks. He urged the members not to protect those who decamped the UNP.

Ranjith Madduma Bandara, a close associate of general secretary Gamini Atukorale, also endorsed the view of Mr. Abeywardena. This was followed by a hard-hitting speech by Lakshman Seneviratne, opening the way for an open discussion.

UNP's Hambantota stalwart Mervyn Silva who is alleged to have had talks with the rebels said it would be unfair to call for stern action against those who had talks with the rebels. "There are personal relationships. At the moment nobody has done any wrong," he said.

Chief Opposition Whip W.J.M. Lokubandara said that the need of the hour was to take the party forward while not forgetting the past. He blamed the party for not making use of opportunities that came its way. One such opportunity was when a total outsider was made acting elections commissioner. The UNP instead of making use of the situation endorsed the position taken by the government.

Mr. Wickremesinghe said the party acted on legal advice. Mr. Lokubandara appeared unimpressed by the explanation. He said it would have been better, had the party remained silent without intervening in the court matter.

Mr. Lokubandara, however, said Mr. de Mel and he had worked out a package to salvage the party from the political quagmire it was in. He succeeded to convince Mr. Wickremesinghe who agreed to implement the proposals.

Mr. Lokubandara said he had suggested some changes to the party structure and called for the appointment of a general secretary who is relieved of electoral work.

Mr. Wickremesinghe said a committee would be put in charge of affairs of party headquarters, Sirikotha. UNP members thought that Mr. Wickremesinghe had deliberately sidelined the general secretary by moving to appoint a new committee. The committee comprises Charitha Ratwatte, Daham Wimalasena, Daya Pelpola and Tilak Marapana. Except for Tilak Marapana, the other names were not new to Sirikotha.

One UNPer quipped that these people had been associated with not only the success of the UNP but also with its downfall. However, a number of parliamentarians who were opposed to Mr. Atukorale welcomed the move. When the question of the national list vacancies came up for discussion, Raja Seneviratne who represented the Lanka Jathika Estate Workers Union objected to the appointment of CWC dissident M.S. Sellasamy to fill the vacancy created by the death of CWC leader S. Thondaman.

Mr. Seneviratne said his union should be consulted on such appointments as it represented the Tamil estate workers. This did not go well with the leader. Former minister A.R.M. Mansoor was also meted out with equal treatment when he raised the matter of appointing a national list MP from the east. "Let me handle the way I want or else you'd better have a committee and decide on it. Don't make matters difficult for me," Mr. Wickremesinghe said.

Earlier, a UNP committee had recommended Cegu Issadeen to fill the national list vacancy allocated for the eastern province. A one time chairman of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, Mr. Issadeen later contested as an independent at the elections to the Kalmunai pradeshiya sabha. Thereafter, he formed the Muslim Kachchi from which he was expelled recently. Mr. Issadeen's name was first proposed by UNP parliamentarian Imtiaz Bakeer Markar, but this proposal was met with stiff opposition from former Speaker M.H. Mohamed. Mr. Mansoor expressed his opposition when the matter was taken up at the working committee. But Mr. Mansoor could not push his case further when Mr. Wickremesinghe snapped back.

At present prominent UNP members from the eastern province are planning to write to the party leader, stating all sides of the story.

In another development, nearly 70 UNP MPs led by Gamini Atukorale met Elections Commissioner Dayananda Dissanayake and handed over a letter listing alleged malpractices during the presidential election. All what Mr. Dissanayake could tell them was that he was on sick leave during that period.

Senior UNP parliamentarian Tyronne Fernando said they were bringing this to his notice to prevent a recurrence of such mistakes. Mr. Dissanayake assured them that instructions would be given to his officers on how to deal with the situation when they confront election malpractices.

Meanwhile, in the latest development in the Ranil-Chandrika saga, President Kumaratunga is to send a reply to Mr. Wickremesinghe's letter. This was discussed at the PA constitutional committee meeting held on Thursday. The unanimous decision of the committee is to respond to Mr. Wickremesinghe's letter. The PA would like to discuss the new reforms with the UNP, but within a specific timeframe limited to a few weeks.

The PA feels that the UNP had been given enough time to think over it. The PA's position appears to be that the UNP should also come up with its resolution to see whether it falls in line with the PA's thinking. If there is consensus, the PA would definitely respond, it was decided. However, the PA thinks that Mr. Wickremesinghe is not promising outright support. While trying to support, Mr. Wickremesinghe is also trying to drag it by laying down conditions. The PA also discussed electoral reforms which they think should be brought into operation before the next general election.

Minister and UNP rebel Nanda Mathew told this column that going by the tone of the letter, he had doubts about the sincerity of Mr. Wickremesinghe. He said that the main objective of this move was to keep his dwindling party cadres together. "Mr. Wickremesinghe, while trying to support the constitutional amendments, says it would not succeed and wants the PA's help in a future UNP government. This is a political gimmick," Mr. Mathew said.

Thus it appears the PA is wary about Mr. Wickremesinghe's move. But by setting out a timeframe, the PA may be trying to trap the UNP. But the two parties should realise that party politics has no place when national interest is at stake.

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