The Political Column

19th March 1999

CBK hopes for deal by August

By our Political Correspondent

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While there was a ray of hope over the ongoing PA-UNP talks, President Kumaratunga fired another salvo through the Far Eastern Economic Review reportedly accusing the UNP of plotting with the LTTE to kill her.

Most political observers believe that the president's accusation is little more than rhetoric because it is apparent that the CID has little if any, evidence to support such a charge.

These and other largely unsubstantiated charges have given rise to suspicion as to whether the Government is really interested in the talks with the UNP. Some see it as an attempt to show international donors that the Government is interested in a political dialogue with the UNP to achieve peace.

UNP sources point out that when the party's presidential candidate was killed before the 1994 presidential election the UNP did not accuse the PA of using the LTTE to achieve its end.

They point out that the PA at that time did not accuse the LTTE of killing Mr. Dissanayake, apparently because it did not want to lose votes in the North East.

Getting back to current events what could be the intentions behind the UNP's sudden change of attitude to accept the 1997 proposals of the Government?

The UNP, as the main opposition had put forward alternative proposals after disagreeing with some of the key proposals of the Government. The UNP did drag its feet on vital matters until it suffered a humiliating defeat at the 1999 presidential election. Is the UNP trying to find a short cut to office by trying to support the 1997 proposals ?

The UNP is now canvassing the abolition of the Executive Presidency after introducing the system, and reaping the fruits of the Presidency for 17 long years.

The UNP's position, then and now shows a major turnabout. What is even more evident today is that the PA is not interested in abolishing the Executive Presidency at least till the end of the second term of President Kumaratunga.

Most analysts say the UNP would be thinking impractically if it expected President Kumaratunga to abolish the Executive Presidency having fought a hard election and coming close to being assassinated.

They say the UNP has to be cautious in campaigning for the abolition of the executive presidency. If the UNP pushes too hard, it could jeopardize the peace process which has raised some hope among the war weary people.

President Kumaratunga could then put the blame on the UNP for scuttling the peace efforts as she did in the past.

Most analysts believe President Kumaratunga wants to enjoy the privileges of the executive presidency for the full two terms to which she is eligible under the 1978 constitution, and to remain in politics for a further unknown period after introducing the new constitution.

The new constitution does not restrict the number of times that the head of Government or Prime Minister could seek re-election. This is based on the Westminster model.

In this backdrop the PA is also reviewing the PR system. General thinking in the PA is that the first past the post system is more advantageous for it under the present political climate.

The idea now is to combine the first past the post with the PR modelled on the German system, which the PA thinks would give it an added advantage.

The PR system especially after the preference vote came in, opened the floodgates for election corruption and heavy rigging.

It creates rivalry between parties and within parties.

There is little doubt that the preferential vote paves the way for the electorate to choose the most suitable out of a list of candidates put forward by a party. But in the absence of a proper mechanism to minimise internal squabbles within political parties, the system has caused turmoil and trouble.

But the PR system also has its positives. No party is able to obtain a steam roller 2/3 majority- as in 1970 and 1977 to tinker with the constitution for personal or party benefit.

So while the PR system might stay, there is general consensus that the preferential voting system needs to be scrapped.

The two main parties are likely to discuss these and other issues at talks which are likely to go till the end of next month.

It is learnt that one of the UNP's aims now is to get a commitment on the unit of devolution which is likely to raise a hornet's nest with more Sinhala hard-liners agitating against it.

Even now the left wing JVP on one side and the Sinhala groups like the NMAT on the other are campaigning against current developments. The JVP wants to know what is happening at the PA UNP talks, while the NMAT and other Sinhala groups are objecting to talks with the LTTE or Norwegian facilitation.

In this scenario the Oslo govt. including Foreign Minister Knut Vollebaek fell recently over an environmental issue not linked to any foreign policy. Some analysts said it would mean a delay if not a setback to the peace process here.

But President Kumaratunga said Oslo had informed her that political changes there would have no bearings on its commitment to facilitate talks in Sri Lanka.

Addressing a meeting of the Foreign Correspondents Association, she went on to say that the Government hoped to finalise a deal with the LTTE by August but insisted that talks should begin without preconditions from either side except for a timeframe.

Many political analysts had asked why the President did not go for a general election soon after the Presidential Election.

She was on a good footing at the time but the recent escalation in the cost of living and LTTE attacks such as the Rajagiriya rampage have obviously reduced the Government's popularity ratings. But the PA is apparently hoping to finalise a deal with the LTTE before it goes for general elections by September the latest.

Meanwhile the Tamil Net on March 14, contradicted another statement made by President Kumaratunga in her interview to the "Far Eastern Economic Review".

She had implied that it was only after she gave permission that Anton Balasingham had been able to go to Norway for treatment.

"Even after I said yes to his being operated on, they (Tigers) bombed me and wanted to kill me. Norway delayed taking him (Anton Balasingham) and helping him, because they were naturally very angry - not that they have any special friendship for me, but they didn't believe in this type of thing. And then they asked again, 'Do you want us to take him?' and I said 'Yes do that," she said.

The Tamil Net has quoted the Norwegian Foreign Ministry spokesman Invard Hannen as saying that the decision to bring Anton Balasingham to Norway for surgery was taken by Norway on its own, on a purely humanitarian basis.

There was no link between Norway's humanitarian assistance to Mr. Balasingham and the country's effort to bring about negotiations between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Government, he was quoted as saying.

However both parties were informed of the decision, he added.

This showed there had been a dialogue between the Norwegian Foreign Ministry and the Sri Lankan Government, which obviously the Foreign Ministry spokesman doesn't want to disclose.

At the same time he had not dismissed President Kumaratunga's comments as a fabrication or a figment of her imagination.

The President's remarks in her recent interview were taken up at the PA UNP talks on Thursday.

UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe told President Kumaratunga that it was a serious charge.

Party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe said the UNP had strongly condemned what happened on Dec. 18 and it was absurd to accuse the party of plotting to kill the President.

President Kumaratunga replying said she did not mean all that and a wrong interpretation was being given to her interview. One official said the interview had been given two weeks ago though the publication in a local newspaper coincided with the PA UNP talks. The President said, "what I said was that looking at the events one could come to a conclusion that the UNP had worked together with the LTTE." Despite all the disputes the two major parties have agreed to disagree but continue the talks.

However, both parties decided to go ahead with the talks despite differences, after the President assured that she would listen to the tape and contradict what was published.

President Kumaratunga also referred to the Dec. 18 bomb attack at Ja-Ela and spoke of how the UNP attempted to put the blame on the PA.

At this point UNP chairman Karu Jayasuriya and General Secretary Gamini Atukorale told of how they were harassed by the CID. But the President countered by going back to how she was harassed by the CID when the UNP was in office.

The UNP delegation also pointed out that minutes of the meetings had not been recorded properly.

Minister M.H. M. Ashraff who confirmed this, volunteered to help the officials to put it in order.

The two delegations also discussed powers of provincial governors and the process of removing governors.

They also discussed the Rajagiriya calamity with the President admitting there was a lapse in the security arrangements in the city.

Mr. Atukorale also sought clarification on Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte's statement in Parliament that the LTTE had not been banned.

Minister Ashraff came to General Ratwatte's defence saying what he meant was that the LTTE was free to engage in legitimate political activity.

Mr. Atukorale was not satisfied saying the Hansard recorded something different.

The President directed officials to verify the matter.

She also hit out at the media, saying some newspapers wanted to dig up personal matters including her educational qualifications and about her children.

This was apparently in response to the UNP's charge that the state media was behaving in an irresponsible manner and that could undermine the talks. Charges levelled against the state media by the UNP.

It was also indicated at the talks that the Government had not finalised matters for talks with the LTTE. This was surprising to the UNP which asked how the Norwegian Government got involved in the initiative if the Government had not finalised the matter.

The President said she too was baffled as to why the LTTE had nominated only Anton Balasingham for talks.

"The talks will collapse if he falls sick. I informed the Norwegian Government and they too made inquiries from the LTTE," the President said.

But the LTTE responded it would nominate only Mr. Balasingham initially.

Amidst all these, the President also hosted a party with a sing song and all that for some of the members of the ruling PA at her official residence on Monday.

It has been on the cards for some time but when LTTE launched another suicide attack on Colombo on Friday the organisers wondered what to do and discussed whether to put off the event which was to be featured on ITN's popular 'Sarasavi Asapuwa'.

The programme designed to highlight the services by local artistes is normally recorded in the residence of the artiste concerned.

On this occasion it was decided to telecast the programme 'live' from Temple Trees. But when ITN authorities pointed out that it could be detrimental to the Government if it was telecast live at this juncture the President said it could be recorded and telecast on another day.

The programme was recorded with the participation of the President, though again there was some delay. She was then away for a few minutes and when she returned she observed that the SLBC orchestra was playing old favourites.

She requested different types of songs but by this time some artistes had already overstepped their limits and were rather tipsy. The proceedings livened up to be a real baila party.

One artiste recalled the days when he gave his voice to the famous 'Anibal Akka' character in the 'Always Break Down' a tele comedy carried on TNL.

The artiste is well known and portrayed the character of the acrobat-man-on wheels in the teledrama Senehewanthayo.

When he was recalling his days as 'Anibal Akka' an equally enthusiastic Minister Richard Pathirana casually inquired whether he was the person who portrayed the character of a 'person with a bell' implying that he was a clown.

The annoyed artiste said 'that was in the past' and continued his artistic skill in style, but Minister Pathirana knew all that was in fun and took it in the right spirit.

Cultural Minister Lakshman Jayakody who came prepared to sing an old "theatre song" popularly known as 'Nurthi gee' was drowned by the baila that filled the air.

President Kumaratunga wanted the SLBC musical orchestra to play a song titled "Pandara Yame Kukula Handanna" .The orchestra did not know it. Fortunately someone in the audience did and helped the orchestra to practise it.

As the song was played, the President and all her ministerial aides including Mangala Samaraweera and S. B. Dissanayake enjoyed the evening thoroughly.

On another playing field President Kumaratunga's statement that businessman should keep out of Cricket administration is being described by many as a political no ball.

Addressing the Foreign Correspondents' Association the President said she believed that sportsmen instead of businessmen should take over sports administration.

She was apparently referring to a succession of big businessmen who have run the Cricket Board in recent years ending up in the controversy it is now embroiled in.

But fans and others said cricket administration today involved hundreds of millions of rupees and a veteran cricketer would not know much about how to handle it.

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