22nd October 2000
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House full of cheer heralds Speaker

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti
Accounts on the British parliamentary tra dition claim that the British Burgesses were burdened by grievances, but feared to approach the King to make representations. As the problems intensified, so did the need to find an articulate, intelligent man who could withstand the King's wrath and still raise the people's issues.

So the Burgesses chose a courageous man by popular consent. But sometimes his courage failed and two able patricians had to drag him to the King. 

It is this man who was later recognized as the Speaker of Parliament, an institution which is deeply entrenched in tradition.

When Anura Priyadarshie Solomon Dias Bandaranaike created history by becoming the 16th Speaker of Sri Lanka, the second Opposition member and the first Bandaranaike- he didn't drag his reluctant socks-clad feet. Yet when Prime minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake and UNP leader Ranil Wickremasinghe escorted the unanimously elected Speaker to the Chair, many were reminded of the ancient tradition of dragging a reluctant Speaker before the King.

Mr. Bandaranaike, a one-time opposition leader was proposed to the Chair jointly by Prime Minister Wickremenayake and Mr. Wickremesinghe. A rare spirit of goodwill prevailed mingled with thunderous applause- a joyous moment for a member who has served the legislature for 23 years.

The inaugural sessions of the 11th Parliament last Wednesday were special for many reasons. Euphoria reigned at the inaugural sessions where excited members who fared the 'manape' battle' (regardless of the mechanisms adopted) trooped in with friends and family to take their place in the House. There were also casualties who had to face defeat such as former trade minister Kingsley Wickremaratne and firebrand Vasudeva Nanayakkara. And some of the wizened sage-like politicians from a previous era will no longer adorn the House. Among those who would be missed are Ms Sirimavo Bandaranaike who passed away a fortnight ago, genial former Speaker K.B. Ratnayake, Anil Moonesinghe and Lakshman Jayakody who took their final bow from the hurly burly politics. There were many firsts too. Besides those who have earned a fresh term, the corridors thronged with over 60 new beaming first timers with their excitement reaching fever pitch. The 11th Legislature has returned a record number of youths and the first Muslim female representation- Ferial Ashraff, widow of M.H.M. Ashraff and Anjan Umma of the JVP. The House was star-studded too with three actors, Jeevan Kumaratunga, Ravindra Randeniya and Jayantha Ketagoda. Creating history was the JVP, which like the proverbial phoenix bird rising from the ashes, earned a powerful representation. 

And there were fathers and sons, like Alick and Ranjith Aluvihare, fathers and daughters like Dharmadasa and Pavithra Wanniarachchi, brothers Chamal and Mahinda Rajapakse, Indika and Dinesh Gunewardhane, cousins Lakshman and Mahinda Yapa Abeywardene and Upali and Ravindra Samaraweera- all making their entry. And the people have given a mandate to three sons of slain former UNP members Sajith Premadasa, Navin Dissanayake and Lilantha Perera.

The agenda included the appointment of the Speaker and Anura Bandaranaike in the finest traditions of democracy was unanimously elevated to the highest position of the Assembly.

Speaking soon afterwards, Prime minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake quoted the words of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike on the onerous duty cast upon a Speaker:

" It is a decisive duty the Speaker is called upon to perform- to be impartial, just, firm, tactful and dignified. He should protect the rights of all members and uphold the dignity of the House and represent the finest traditions of democracy."

If the Premier inadvertently claimed that the government proposed Mr. Bandaranaike's name for the office of Speaker, Mr. Wickremesinghe sought to correct the position by profusely thanking the government for accepting the UNP nomination. Mr. Wickremesnighe, a childhood friend of Mr. Bandaranaike enthused that it was heartening to witness unanimity in a House so divided on any issue- and claimed that his joy transcended mere politics to see an old friend in such an exalted office. Mr. Wickremesinghe's speech was full of historic details about the evolution of the office of the Speaker. The ancient office he said dated back to 1337 when the people needed somebody to voice their grievances to the king, which in the 17th Century evolved to its present form.

" You are the first of your illustrious family to hold this unique office and we have no doubt that the finest traditions would be upheld by you and the rights of all members protected," he said.

The new Speaker was a moved man- profusely thanking all party leaders who showered him with praise for his fine oratory skills and exemplary conduct. Responding emotionally, Mr. Bandaranaike said he was touched by the warmth and confidence bestowed on him with unanimity- and said he viewed it as a manifestation of appreciation for his late father S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and mother Sirimavo Bandaranaike who were pathfinders in a new democratic order. " I shall serve you faithfully," he pledged.

The Presidency

Steering ship amidst swirling political winds

When almost every household in the country was glued to their television sets last Saturday, watching the telecast of the proceedings of the funeral of former Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike, they were treated to a rather unusual spectacle: Rauf Hakeem, co-leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress was seated in the front row reserved for the first family with likes of Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wikremanayake seated further away.

Some first dismissed it as a coincidence, but if there were raised eyebrows at this arrangement there were more surprises in store. When the time came for funeral orations, D. M. Jayaratne spoke on behalf of the ruling Peoples' Alliance, S.B. Dissanayake on behalf of the SLFP but there was a speech each for Arumugam Thondaman, Douglas Devananda and Hakeem himself.

There were those in the gathering- and many elsewhere- who voiced disbelief at this political sideshow that was being enacted, saying Ms. Bandaranaike herself would have disapproved of these theatrics. But the moral of the story was plain for all to see- President Chandrika Kumaratunga was showing the country that she has got what it takes to keep coalition of ideological antagonists going, even for another six years.

We may hardly realise it but Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga is ten months into her second term of office. Ignoring popular advice she deliberately delayed calling for an immediate general election after her narrow victory at the 1999 December presidential election thus foregoing a chance to capitalise on the snow-balling effect of the poll for which the Sri Lankan electorate is famous for.

By the time general elections were called ten months later, her government had only a poor track record to defend and had spoilt it's standing with the majority community by trying to almost forcibly introduce a draft constitution that evoked a wave of protest, the kind of which has not been since the Indo-Lanka Accord eleven years ago.

The UNP was confident- and complacent- that it could capitalise on this anti-PA wave and the writing was on the wall for the PA- in the form of the millions of posters and metaphorically too. The stage, or so everyone thought, was set for a close finish at the polls with the UNP holding a slight edge. Everyone, maybe except Chandrika Kumaratunga.

True, the elections were by no means free and fair but the UNP, having experienced the Wayamba provincial election earlier should have been ready to counter the intimidation and the blatant rigging that took place. 

And, even then, what was also clear was that just as much as there was no clear mandate for the PA, there was no definite mandate for the UNP either- and that partly explains the emergence of the JVP as a force to reckon with in parliamentary politics. Elections Commissioner Dayananda Dissanayake prevaricated over the results in Kandy for some time but the real race, many a politician said afterwards, began only after the final seat count was announced on October 12, giving the PA 107 seats and the UNP, 89.

President Kumaratunga marshalled her negotiators and went into action- this despite the unexpected demise of her mother which complicated her daily routine to some extent, what with security considerations also imposing restrictions on her whereabouts. Douglas Devananda was roped in and the President ensured, offering Douglas the portfolio for rehabilitation of the Northern Province, that the EPDP will not look towards the UNP for succour.

What was enacted at Horagolla amidst azure skies last Saturday was therefore yet another act in this drama- the battle to woo and win coalition partners in order to form a government with at least a semblance of stability.

Of course, Rauf Hakeem was not satisfied merely with the seating arrangements at Horagolla. He was making strident demands for the sun, moon and stars: at least two cabinet portfolios, three deputy minister posts and a host of corporation and diplomatic postings, including the Ambassadorship to the United Nations for one of its legal advisors who is a President's Counsel, in addition to asking for diplomatic postings in Jordan, Iran and Kenya. President Kumaratunga never said 'no' to any of these demands and on the other hand, Hakeem was not sure of the UNP- with only 89 seats- to throw his lot there. 

The UNP, if it was serious about forming a government, did not show it. The negotiators Ranil Wickremesinghe sent to strike deals with the JVP and the SLMC are best described as Under 17 players rather than being from the higher rungs of the party. President Kumaratunga, in contrast employed Kusumsiri Balapatabendi, a one-time junior in the chambers of a President's Counsel where the late M. H. M. Ashraff and Rauf Hakeem had also been juniors. The results tell the tale. 

By Tuesday, President Kumaratunga herself had broken with protocol to meet with Ferial Ashraff, driving to the latter's residence. After all, if Ms. Ashraff was not coming to her she was willing to go to Ms. Ashraff even if it was only for the purpose of negotiating the terms for a future partnership with the SLMC! Chandrika Kumaratunga, by one short ride from Temple Trees to Stanmore Crescent had outwitted Rauf Hakeem. And when Ferial Ashraff pledged her unconditional support to the President the self-proclaimed kingmaker and political Superman- Hakeem-had become yet another man hanging on to Chandrika Kumaratunga's saree pota.

Come Thursday, the Cabinet was sworn in after much speculation even though, almost at the same time a suicide bomber was blowing himself up at Town Hall a few yards away from where another more lethal bomber blasted herself on December 18 last year. That it was the world's largest cabinet and may well enter the Guinness book of records seem to be of little concern to Chandrika Kumaratunga. She had after all promised these rewards in return for the co-operation of these honourable ministers and she does keep some promises, doesn't she?

All this only demonstrated that Chandrika Bandaranaike's instincts for political survival brought out the politician in her. She was quick to make things happen and she did not worry about qualms or a conscience in doing so. For instance she had no hesitation in asking the EPDP or the NUA for help to form the government, well knowing that they are bound to renew their demand for the draft constitution that landed her in so much of trouble in August.

Ranil Wickremesinghe in contrast, has a laid back approach to politicking. He has been accused of watchful expectation and masterly inactivity in the past, hoping for things to fall apart and fall into his lap at the god given moment. This negative attitude unfortunately was repeated in the aftermath of the election results last week.

Of course this is not to say that everything that Chandrika Kumaratunga did in the past two weeks was admissible as correct in the name of shrewd political one-upmanship. Far from it. The President indeed did show a blatant disregard for a free and fair election. We did see a forerunner to that in her approach to the outcome of the Wayamba poll. She only admitted that there were a "few bad incidents" and did nothing to annul the results as she could have done.

Then, this time around before the President left for London to enroll her son Vimukthi at a university there she made a public announcement that stern action would be taken against anyone engaging in poll rigging. In fact, she did nothing of the sort. By implication, she gave her imprimatur to such blatant violations as happened in Kandy and Hanguranketha- where the two culprits were two of her closest political lieutenants. If that was the story in the south, in the north it was the EPDP which was up to mischief notably in Kayts and the TULF would bear testimony to that. 

One could rationalise that it was because the President would have known that had she taken the straight and narrow path of a free and fair poll, she would not have been able to form a government today- but then two wrongs never make a right! 

All this has now ensconced President Chandrika Kumaratunga and another Peoples' Alliance government for a second term of office, ostensibly- if nothing untoward happens- for another six years. By hook or by crook, this government enjoys a 116 seats in the House as against a 108 from the combined opposition which has one less vote because the portly Anura Bandaranaike now occupies the Speaker's chair.

In the afterglow of this achievement, President Kumaratunga might fancy herself as a great saviour of the nation, a Nelson Mandela of sorts who heads a rainbow coalition and strives to achieve durable peace for two warring races. But Kumaratunga's problem is indeed the coalition she heads- a motley crowd that includes the Dinesh Gunewardenas as much as the Douglas Devanandas, the Batty Weerakoons as much as the Ronnie de Mels, the Rauf Hakeems as much as the Fowzies. Kumaratunga is trying to steer the ship of state amidst such swirling political winds. The question is how much in control of herself is she as a result of dealing with all these 'honourable' gentlemen? Can she do as she wants or will she be subject to the dictates of the Hakeems, Thondamans, Gunewardenas et al? Or will the Kumaratunga smile and charm work for the next six years, presented as it is gift-wrapped with a cabinet portfolio?

To some extent, Chandrika Kumaratunga is a lame-duck President- though that goes against the grain of her devil-may-care personality. But in her favour is her resolve to stick around. She could take solace from history- if Dudley Senanayake could do it in 1965 with his 'hath havula' and last till 1970, why not Chandrika Kumaratunga?

Her next move will obviously be to try and pass the Cross-over Bill and woo some UNP MPs to cross the floor of the House- and we can bet a cabinet portfolio, for that seems to be the cheapest thing going around- that Chandrika Kumaratunga couldn't care less even if the Cabinet was expanded to 60!

But, busy as President Kumaratunga will be with all these concerns- and Rauf Hakeem's hundred day deadline for constitutional reforms also looming- forming and running an efficient administration and governing the country with a vision may well be relegated to the lesser slots in her list of priorities.

One can be almost certain that that man, Velupillai Prabhakaran is watching these developments with unmitigated interest, having now acquired even more sophisticated weaponry. Closer south, the economy will take a pounding- as it did in the last six years- with world oil prices on a roller coaster ride. These will be the issues the masses will be concerned with- not who is getting which portfolio and who our nominee to the UN will be!

If then, Chandrika Kumaratunga can show the same energy, resolve and dynamism that she displayed in forming a government against the odds to the task of nation building and running an efficient administration that cares about it's people politically, economically and socially, then she would have rightly earned herself a place in history. 

But, if the past six years of the Chandrika Kumaratunga presidency are anything of a yardstick, it pays to be sceptical. There are those who say that politics is the art of the possible. The problem Chandrika Kumaratunga will face with her second government is that it may sometimes be impossible for the people to bear. 

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