The Political Column

3rd September 2000

Ashraff says it with dates

By our Political Correspondent
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The stark reality in the PA-SLMC crisis which has been the topic of discussion in the media and political circles for the past two weeks is that both parties are unable to stand on their own without the support of the other.

The 1994 general elections give ample testimony to this. The PA led by Chandrika Kumaratunga just scraped through and managed to obtain a slender majority of one seat in parliament due to the party's electoral pact with the SLMC. In 1994 the PA was riding high on the wave of hope for change and many believed the party would win a handsome majority. But the PR system of elections introduced by the 1978 constitution stood as a big boulder in the way of the PA. Despite, much criticism of the UNP and people's hope for a change, the PA with the help of the SLMC could get only just one seat more than the combined opposition in parliament. 

The UNP after the election results did not give up its effort to form a government. UNP stalwart Gamini Dissanayake explored various ways and means of forming the government. But despite these efforts the then Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, acknowledged the "swing" and resigned to pave the way for Ms. Kumaratunga to be the Prime Minister and President D. B. Wijetunga invited her to form the government instead of Sirima Bandaranaike who was the PA leader. Mr. Wijetunga took this decision despite advice to the contrary by his political friends. Thus it was Mr. Wijetunga's gesture that made Ms. Kumaratunga the prime minister in 1994.

Today, the situation is different. The PA-LTTE goodwill that prevailed in 1994 has turned into a bitter enmity today. It is believed the LTTE is all out to disrupt the elections as it did during the 1994 presidential elections by killing UNP's presidential candidate Dissanayake. In 1994, the PA was also the hope of the Jaffna people and also of the LTTE. They thought some sort of a solution could be worked out with the new Kumaratunga administration, especially after the UNP antagonized the minorities with President Wijetunga's infamous remark that described the minorities as creepers on the Sinhala tree.

But the upcoming elections will be held in a different backdrop. Today, the cost of living has escalated by leaps and bounds. Law and order has deteriorated. Violence is on the rise with underworld characters taking the upper hand in virtually all activities including politics. Democratic values and the right of an individual for his free choice are not respected. 

The poster war has sprung up in Colombo, indicating the financial strength of the candidates and inevitably giving rise with to speculation that the funding vultures have already picked their targets.

The fast deteriorating situation has prompted some western countries to advise their citizens staying in Sri Lanka to avoid public transport, public gatherings and to be alert on what is going on politically. 

As it stands today, the task before the PA in wooing the voter is not that easy. President Kumaratunga in what appears to be a desperate bid to keep PA in office appears to be harping on her old political strategy when she said the UNP knew about the LTTE's abortive attempt to assassinate her last year. The PA is once again playing the LTTE card, linking the UNP with the rebel group in a bid to veer the masses away from the UNP. 

But the PA is finding it difficult to sustain its charge because its proposed constitution also advocates an interim council for the North and the East for 10 years a move many hardline Sinhalese try to portray as giving away that part of the country to the LTTE.

Under these circumstances, the PA has apparently realised that it could form a government only in coalition with the SLMC and other parties such as the PLOTE, EPDP and the EPRLF. The SLMC, too, knows this well but it also has realised that it has no leg to stand on in the East without the support of the PA. 

According to SLMC insiders, party leader M. H. M. Ashraff and other stalwarts are unable to go to the East without police protection due to the uncertain security situation in the area. They know well that they could get adequate security only if they tag themselves with the PA. Thus it is difficult for Mr. Ashraff to sustain his demands any further if he is to carry out his campaign without any obstacles in the East.

Mr. Ashraff was an angry man on his arrival at the Colombo Airport. He declined to accept security offered by the government and sent away his official bullet-proof vehicle. Some PA ministers say Mr. Ashraff's behaviour was merely a political gimmick to create an impression that he was an angry man and a free-thinker who could carry on, on his own. Mr. Ashraff who arrived from Medina after the Umrah pilgrimage was seen driving away in a Nissan Sunny car with Ports Authority Vice-Chairman Rafeek and one-time parliamentarian Asitha Perera. He also made it a point to send a fifty page letter explaining his position to President Kumaratunga.

The President was anxious to see an end to Mr. Ashraff's clash with Minister A. H. M. Fowzie

Prior to his meeting with the President, Mr. Ashraff on Wednesday addressed some 100 party delegates at Trans Asia Hotel where he vowed to send Minister Fowzie home. The SLMC leader apparently believes he could deal a severe blow to the so-called Muslim unit of the SLFP and expose Mr. Fowzie if the SLMC contested on its own in the Colombo district.

Mr. Ashraff formally introduced the party hierarchy the party's new entrant A. J. M. Muzammil, his longtime friend, to the delegates. He said the media had described him as a 'wheeler dealer' but he would make him a leader. Thereafter, he hugged Mr. Muzammil, a one-time UNPer.

Mr. Ashraff then revealed his plan to contest under the National Unity Alliance. He had already received the approval of the Elections Commissioner to retain the SLMC's well-known tree symbol for the NUA at the elections.

Mr. Ashraff also invited former UNP strongman and Puravasi Peramuna leader Sirisena Cooray to join hands with him at the next general election. Mr. Cooray, a versatile political strategist, did not object, but he questioned the rationale behind contesting under the NUA. 

Mr. Cooray's position is that as a party leader, he should contest under his party. Mr. Cooray's base will be Colombo and one could see it would be difficult for Mr. Cooray to accept Mr. Ashraff's invitation.

Mr. Cooray, however, invited Mr. Ashraff's candidates to contest under his Puravasi Peramuna in the Colombo district, saying that it would benefit both the Puravasi Peramuna and the NUA.

On Wednesday evening, the SLMC had an other gathering at Town Hall where the new entrants were allowed to speak. Sarath Kongahage who quit the UNP was there to congratulate and wish Mr. Ashraff well. But the most unexpected thing happened when Mr. Ashraff announced Mr. Kongahage's name as one of the deputy leaders of the NUA. Mr. Kongahage was taken unawares but he could not resist thinking that everything happens for the best. Mr. Kongahage was present at the meeting on an invitation by Asitha Perera.

With heaps of problems on his head, Mr. Ashraff was to meet the President on the same evening.

Though the appointment was at 6 p.m., there was no signs of Mr. Ashraff coming to Temple Trees even around 7 p.m. The President has just returned from a district convention at Pelawatte in Moneragala and Mr. Ashraff went home regardless of President's request to see him.

Three ministers Mangala Samaraweera, Alavi Moulana and S. B. Dissanayake who were waiting for Mr. Ashraff at Temple Trees also left, saying that it would be futile waiting for him. Mr. Dissanayake later spoke to Mr. Ashraff and asked Mr. Ashraff how he was going to campaign in the East without police protection and other logistics.

By this time, the President who was fed up with Mr. Ashraff's lack of response sprang into action and directed her officials to withdraw all vehicles given for the use of Minister Ashraff's staff. This was conveyed to all his officials and the Sri Lanka Ports Authority. The move caused jittery officials to inform Mr. Ashraff, who by then had begun to think that he was pressing the President too hard. He immediately contacted Mr. Moulana to fix an appointment to see the President. 

Finally, Mr. Ashraff saw the President around 10 o'clock. The President was firm. She wanted to know whether the SLMC would join the PA or not. Mr. Ashraff agreed with some adjustments here and there, and put forward his demands reinstate the suspended chairman of the Puttalam urban council and to hold an inquiry against Minister Fowzie. The President agreed to reinstate the UC chairman but such an action also has certain constraints. 

Mr. Ashraff had gone to see the President with fresh dates from Medina and holy Zam Zam water as Muslims do traditionally after a pilgrimage to Mecca.

Having struck a deal with the SLMC, the President allowed the NUA to contest 10 districts including Colombo. But Mr. Ashraff seems unsettled with the discussion that took place. He thereafter sent a five-page letter under the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress letterhead to the President. 

Mr. Ashraff released this letter to the media soon after it was sent to the President. Although Asitha Perera and several others close to him tried to prevent Mr. Ashraff from sending the letter, the SLMC leader stood his ground. The letter would have further confused the issue rather than resolve matters. He also made three other demands from the PA. Mr. Ashraff seemed to have been annoyed by SLFP general secretary S. B. Dissanayake's media statement where he said Minister Fowzie would not be removed from the SLFP and the cabinet. 

Mr. Ashraff said in his letter: "Our problem is how can my dear friend Minister S. B. Dissanayake being the secretary of the SLFP make conclusive statements almost to the effect that the SLFP will not dismiss Fowzie from the party after the secretary himself has initiated disciplinary proceedings. If he continues to take this public position, the so-called disciplinary proceedings initiated at your directive will turn out to be a farce and a sham in the eyes of the public."

This is the first time the news that the SLFP has initiated an inquiry against Minister Fowzie is coming to light. But Minister Fowzie continues irrespective of the so-called inquiry and claimed that he won the battle with Mr. Ashraff.

However, the notable feature in Mr. Ashraff' letter was he had withdrawn his demand to remove Mr. Fowzie from the cabinet. The letter said:

"It is not our position that Minister Fowzie should be removed from the cabinet. Our firm position is that under no circumstances he should be accommodated in the National List and we will gracefully accept the verdict of the people if he is re-elected to parliament."

But the President had already taken the decision not to include Mr. Fowzie in the National List long before Mr. Ashraff's letter. The decision was taken when Mr. Ashraff was in Mecca. Analysts ask whether Mr. Ashraff's new demand was indicative of his intention that he was determined to create problems for Mr. Fowzie in the Colombo district. But it could be a difficult task for Mr. Ashraff whose vote base is not sufficient to topple Mr. Fowzie. So, it is very likely that he will attempt this with the help of the Puravasi Peramuna. 

Therefore the first two fresh demands of Min ister Ashraff are 1) that the SLFP general secretary should clarify his position on the purported statement, 2) that Minister Fowzie should not be accommodated in the National List. 

Minister Ashraff did not stop at that. He has taken on the President to win his case. "One last point Madam is that we cannot accept the views of Mr. Fowzie as only personal to him. He had chosen to express those views on a ministerial letterhead and in his capacity as the President of the Muslim Unit of the SLFP of which you are the de facto leader. Therefore, it is the position of the SLMC that it is you who should take full moral, legal and vicarious responsibility for his statement."

The third demand of Mr. Ashraff appears to be that Minister Moulana, general secretary of the Muslim unit of the party, also should disassociate himself from Mr. Fowzie's statement. 

Minister Ashraff has specifically mentioned that only the President and he who are on a higher intellectual plane could understand the hidden messages in a letter and he has accordingly told the President that she should clarify the position since the common man was not capable of reading between the lines. "The ordinary and the common man should be told in no uncertain terms what the historic communication to me means."

Soon after the President received Mr. Ashraff's letter who, was at the time, trying to recover from the humiliation he had to undergo at the hands of Minister Fowzie, she took prompt action to put an end to this protracted dispute. 

She knew at once that Mr. Ashraff was close to desperation. So she moved swiftly into action by sending a response to Mr. Ashraff, accepting his position and exonerating him and restoring the image of the SLMC. 

The President blamed Mr. Fowzie for his foolishness, which created an additional problem for her on the brink of a crucial election. She took no time to tender an apology on behalf of the party Whether the President was being diplomatic or she was developing into a shrewd politician of the calibre of J. R. Jayewardene, nobody yet knows.

Is this for a political gain or loss? She may gain a few thousand Muslim voters who back Mr. Ashraff. But will a majority of Sinhalese approve of her action of tendering an apology to Mr. Ashraff just to achieve a political goal.

Political analysts are of the opinion that Mr. Ashraff had made a mistake by releasing those letters to the media which has revealed how desperate both Mr. Ashraff and the President are in their bid to win the elections.

The Ashraff-Fowzie clash had definitely benefited the UNP and if the SLMC contests on its own in ten districts, it would help the UNP very much. But the UNP too has its problems. Internal bickering surfaced once again when the party was formulating its manifesto. Chief Opposition Whip W. J. M. Lokubandara wanted the Samurdhi allowance increased by Rs. 1000 but UNP leader Wickremesinghe disagreed. But after much persuasion, he thought that it could be increased only if the "government on wings" forego certain other benefits like free text books, free uniforms etc. But it was agreed finally to increase Samurdhi by Rs. 1000.

Another dispute flared up when the party opposed an open-ended interim council to solve the North-East crisis. But Mr. Lokubandara said this position would be exploited by the opponents. But Mr.Wickremesinghe was apparently adamant on the issues while the others became silent observers. 

Among the prominent new comers in the UNP lists are Rohitha Bogollagama who will be contesting from the Kurunegala district, Sajith Premadasa from Hambantota and Navin Dissanayake from Nuwara-Eliya district. Mr. Bogollagama has been a close associate of Mr. Wickremesinghe and was the former Chairman of the BOI. He is likely to contest the SLFP stronghold of Nikaweratiya. 

Sagala Ratnayake is another new face from Deniyaya who is expected to make a big impact in the Matara district for the UNP. In the National list are a few known names like K. N. Choksy, A. H. M. Azwer, Milinda Moragoda and Tilak Marapana. 

Meanwhile. at the weekly meeting of the ministers, Mr. Fowzie once again came up with the proposal to purchase 800 buses from India. But Nimal Siripala de Silva opposed it, saying that since it is the policy of the government to protect the local industry, this should not be allowed.

Mr. de Silva said the move did not augur well for the PA at a time of elections as thousands of employees of the local plants, especially those of Latec, would be affected by it. But Mr. Fowzie said that even the local industry uses Tata chassis from India and charged that he wanted the proposal approved because the local industry never delivered the goods on time.

Mr. Fowzie said it was essential to put the buses before the elections to avoid commuter comments that the government had ignored the transport service. However, after much discussion the cabinet approved that 350 buses be allowed to be purchased in the first instance.

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