10th December 2000

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With President Chandrika Kumara-tunga on an extended visit in London or elsewhere, fresh disputes have arisen ver the legality of executive proclamations and new appointments to an already enlarged cabinet.

The main opposition UNP on Friday challenged the legality of the formal proclamation issued by the President for the monthly extension of the Emergency. UNP members said the proclamation with the President's signature had a Colombo stamp though she was still reported to be in London amidst speculation as to why she was there and what she was doing, with some timeframes extending beyond Christmas. The rumours ranged from horror-scopes to domestic matters. Amidst a multitude of controversies and conflicts we would like to focus attention today on the urgent and important need for some checks and balances relating to Presidential powers on key appointments and other crucial matters.

After the photo-finish in the October 10 elections, we first saw a jumbo-sized cabinet of world record proportions with ministries fragmented in such a way that in some cases including housing officials don't know where the floor is or where the roof is. There were protests over the dispensation of money from public funds to maintain all these ministers with their attendant band-wagon of staff and privileges costing millions of rupees. But the response to those protests was cynical and we saw an equally over-sized junior cabinet, though the two key posts there were left vacant in a swirl of speculations and allegations.

President Kumaratunga publicly pledged before the elections, that anyone involved in polls violence or malpractices would not be given key posts. Despite all the promises and precautions Kandy and Nuwara Eliya districts were among the worst affected by violence, intimidation and threats.

It was in this backdrop that the key post of deputy minister of defence was left vacant in the aftermath of allegations against Anuruddha Ratwatte, who had held that post for six years. The charges against Mr. Ratwatte were made not only by opposition and independent groups, but also by two ministers. It is also reported that a PA disciplinary committee is probing polls related charges against about 50 PA members, including four ministers and 15 deputies.

A similar scenario built up around the stormy, headline-hitting S. B. Dissanayake. Before and after the elections he was at the centre of battles and conflicts. When the new cabinet was named, Mr. Dissanayake was left with the largely ceremonial portfolio in charge of Parliament ironically the same institution he had allegedly threatened to dissolve or bypass, if it would not give a two-thirds majority for the new constitution. S. B.Dissanayake is a fighter with some secret clout and fight he did, till fragments of other ministries were added to him and still he got the prize post as Deputy Minister of Finance.

So now Anuruddha Ratwatte is back in the saddle as Deputy Minister of Defence and S.B. Dissanayake is handling key areas such as Customs and banking as Deputy Minister of Finance, along with the reluctant G.L. Peiris and with thin red lines as to who's handling whose money.

Sri Lanka's sovereign people if that hallowed foundation of our democracy has some meaning anymore would have every right to ask why Mr. Ratwatte and Mr. Dissanayake were initially marginalised to some extent, and then restored to key posts without a conclusive inquiry or clearing of their names. And even more mysterious question is why the President waited till she left for London and gave long-distance orders for Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake to swear in Mr. Ratwatte and Mr. Dissanayake to the influential posts.

In the United States, all top appointments including Cabinet portfolios have to be screened and approved by Congress. The significant feature in the ongoing crisis there is that the outgoing President Clinton has no role to play. If such an extraordinary deadlock or situation of historic indecision had erupted here, we have to think of what would have or would not have happened. Without accountability and responsibility, the road can only lead to anarchy and dictatorship.

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