The Political Column

3rd June 2001

Who is wooing whom?

By our Political Correspondent

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President Chandrika Kumaratunga on Tuesday announced over the national television Rupavahini that the climate was now conducive for direct talks between the government and the LTTE. Her statement came just two days after the government rejected the LTTE's demand for a deproscription on the rebel group as a pre-condition for talks.

The LTTE, had warned of serious consequences if the government failed to lift the ban on it and enter into a meaningful dialogue. In this backdrop, if the President feels that the atmosphere is conducive for talks, what is the positive step she is going to take towards making it a reality? Will the Imagegovernment retract its declaration that the ban would not be lifted?

As things stand today, there appears to be no change in the government's position as far as the ban is concerned. The LTTE has also stated that it is not prepared to make any concession on this demand. The LTTE's political wing leader S. P. Thamilchelvam said that their group was unique unlike the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation) or the IRA (Irish Republican Army) for two reasons. (I) That it maintains a permanent conventional army and (II) that there is a land mass which come under its writ. This is the position as it stands.

Is the Kumaratunga administration genuine in its peace efforts? Or else is it trying to buy time to deal with the UNP sponsored no-confidence motion?

While the government moves to reject the Tiger demand, Minister Richard Pathirana has gone on record as saying that the government should talk to the LTTE and, even if it had to lift the ban on it.

Mr. Pathirana is the Leader of the House and his statements generally should reflect the government policy, but on this occasion it is totally different in that the stand taken by him is contradictory to the government's position. Analysts thus believe that Mr. Pathirana's statement could be an indication that the government is moving towards lifting the ban on Tigers. But this move could be largely on grounds of political expediency.

The PA is likely to discuss the matter at its next executive committee meeting in the light of the proposed no-confidence motion to be tabled by the UNP this month. It is in this aspect that the SLMC factor comes into play.

The government's relations with the SLMC have been strained after President Kumaratunga took SLMC leader Rauf Hakeem to task twice. First, it was over the Mawanella incidents where Mr. Hakeem was accused of making public statements that embarrassed the government because they went against the principle of collective responsibility.

Mr. Hakeem, however, said that his party had the freedom to take decisions on a case-by-case basis under a memorandum of understanding his party negotiated with the PA.

On the second occasion, the President reprimanded Mr. Hakeem for opposing the appointment of a select committee to study local government electoral reforms. She told Mr. Hakeem that it was not the first time that he embarrassed the government. But Mr. Hakeem stood his ground. He said that it was a decision taken by the party high command and would not be changed under pressure from anybody.

In Minister Hakeem's view, the status quo should remain as long as the local elections are concerned, because the proposed system would close doors to smaller parties such as the SLMC, JVP etc.

"Even the JVP is a necessary evil, but it should remain in the main stream of politics," Minister Hakeem told this column.

The government which could not forge ahead with its proposal to change the local government electoral system now tries to talk to the SLMC to sort out matters amicably. The new strategy has been adopted after it was discussed at the SLFP central committee meeting last week.

Mr. Hakeem who was abroad for a week was scheduled to arrive on Friday. Party sources said there would not be a change of policy whether the President adopts coercion or concessions as a means to convince it on the need for local government reforms.

Given the thin majority in parliament, the government is not in a position to antagonize the SLMC, especially in the face of the no-confidence motion. It is no secret that Mr. Hakeem had several rounds of talks with the UNP. The President also knows about this. But what is not known is the nature of these talks.

The government is moving in whichever way possible in a bid to defuse the time-bomb being set by the UNP. The latest of government's moves come in the form of an invitation to the UNP and its leader Ranil Wickremesinghe for consensus talks.

At a recent ceremony, Minister Mangala Samaraweera described Mr. Wickremesinghe as a great democrat and invited him to join the government to strengthen democratic ideals.

Mr. Samaraweera would have felt that Mr. Wickremesinghe was caught up in the fold of a gang that tries to hold the party to ransom.

At a recent inner circle meeting, President Chandrika Kumaratunga is reported to have said that the government was planning to hold talks with the UNP and other parties in a bid to reach some consensus on a new constitution which she believed would help solve the ethnic conflict.

Ministers S. B. Dissanayake, Mangala Samaraweera and Anura Priyadarshana Yapa among others have attended this meeting.

The President had reportedly said it was important to look at options available in case there was any difficulty to enter into a dialogue with the LTTE.

But it appears that the UNP is not interested in such talks with its main objective being ousting the government by July. Talks are underway to woo the support of other opposition parties.

The JVP will be one of the main targets, and winning over the JVP is not that easy. The UNP would be compelled to agree to several conditions put forward by the JVP. One of the conditions is that the four independent commissions to run elections, Police, the public service and the judiciary should be set up before the next parliamentary or presidential elections whichever comes first. The other condition is that the Parliamentary and Presidential elections should take place under a caretaker government.

To counter the UNP moves, the government has also taken a number of steps. One such step may come in the form of a constitutional amendment to enable MPs to crossover without losing their seats.

Minister and SLFP General Secretary S.B. Dissanayake said the party is seriously considering this move, as it would strengthen the democratic freedom of MPs.

A similar effort by the government just before last year's general elections failed because it could not muster the required support to pass the amendment with a two-thirds majority.

But on this occasion the PA hopes to talk to the UNP and other opposition parties. UNP spokesman Karunasena Kodituwakku said the UNP would not oppose any moves that would strengthen democracy.

What is significant in the crossover move is that it could be made use of by both parties for their benefit. Depending on the coercive or buying power, the main parties could target members in the opposite camp.

The UNP in the meantime appears to be thinking ahead the future strategy irrespective of the outcome of the no-confidence motion. It is planning to regain the lost strongholds in the eastern province. Mr. Wickremesinghe feels the party should not antagonize the Muslims, most of whom had traditionally backed the UNP.

With a view to obtaining the support of the Muslims, Mr. Wickremesinghe had a meeting with UNP's Eastern Province stalwart P. Dayaratne and UNP Muslim MPs. He told Mr. Dayaratne to abandon his plans to protest against the creation of a Muslim district by bifurcating the district of Ampara. Mr. Dayaratne was quite agreeable to the suggestion.

But later he defied the party leader and went ahead with the protest.

Mr. Dayaratne's action has not only caused some sort of bitter feeling among the Muslim UNP MPs but also has made the task of Mr. Wickremesinghe in wooing the SLMC's support for the no-confidence motion more difficult.

As regards the impeachment motion against Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva, the UNP is amending the original motion after it was pointed out that a motion of this nature should contain charges that can be substantiated. Chief Opposition Whip W.J.M. Lokubandara, Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya, Rajitha Senaratne and Ravi Karunanayake, said they were providing the required documents to effect amendments to the motion so that it will comply with the requirements of Article 107 (3) of the Constitution and Parliamentary Standing Orders by stating the full particulars of each charge.

Article 107 of the Constitution states thus:

I. The Chief Justice, the President of the Court of Appeal and every other Judge of the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal shall be appointed by the President of the Republic by warrant under his hand.

II. Every such Judge shall hold office during good behaviour, and shall not be removed except by an order of the President made after an address of Parliament, supported by a majority of the total number of Members of Parliament (including those not present) has been presented to the President for such removal on the ground of proved misbehaviour or incapacity:

Provided that no resolution for the presentation of such an address shall be entertained by the Speaker or placed on the Order Paper of Parliament, unless notice of such resolution is signed by not less than one-third of the total number of Members of Parliament and sets out full particulars of the alleged misbehaviour or incapacity.

III. Parliament shall by law or by Standing Orders provide for all matters relating to the presentation of such an address, including the procedure for the passing of such resolution, the investigation and proof of the alleged misbehaviour or incapacity and the right of such Judge to appear and to be heard in person or by representative.

The documents relating to the charges have now been produced to the drafting committee appointed by the group.

They are presently being studied and necessary amendments are being made to the resolution now.

Meanwhile, some insiders allege that the prime movers of the impeachment motion against the Chief Justice had obtained the signatures of some MPs on a blank sheet. UNP MPs loyal to Mr. Wickremesinghe have refused to sign it, because they fear their signatures could be used against another move to oust the leader.

The motion against the CJ is not the first time an attempt was made to remove the chief justice in Sri Lanka. A similar attempt was made to remove Chief Justice N. D. M. Samarakoon during the UNP regime.

There was a debate in legal circles as to whether it should be a constitutional procedure or a process through Parliament via the Standing Orders.

Finally they decided to amend the Parliamentary Standing Orders, which enabled them to remove a judge of the apex court from his or her office.

Keeping a close watch on UNP moves is Minister S. B. Dissanayake. Alarmed by the UNP's progress on the motion, he telephoned President Kumaratunga to tell her that the situation was dicey.

"We have to take some positive steps to nip it in the bud," he is reported to have told the President. But the President seemed to have not taken the matter seriously.

"No one is leaving us. Don't worry, she told in a relaxed mood. We have enough numbers. Don't get excited," she said.

Mr. Dissanayake apparently did not agree with the President and a difference of opinion is said to have followed. In the backdrop of this incident, some ask whether Mr. Dissanayake has begun to openly challenge the President.

Mr. Dissanayake is known for his opposition to bring Anura Bandaranaike back to the SLFP. He and others who are opposed to this move have thrown their weight behind Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake. Most of the senior SLFPers are also backing Mr. Wickremanayake for the top slot at the end of the second term of President Kumaratunga.

These SLFPers had reportedly disagreed with Minister Mangala Samaraweera's recent statement that President Kumaratunga would come back as the executive Prime Minister after her second term though they have not expressed their sentiments openly.

Moreover what baffles the top SLFPers is an affinity Minister Dissanayake had developed with Opposition Leader Wickremesinghe.

Minister Dissanayake has defended UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe's position in recent political interviews while Mr. Wickremesinghe has described Mr. Dissanayake as a "Premadasa in the SLFP."

Mr. Dissanayake was obviously pleased to hear Mr. Wickremesinghe's remarks. But the thaw between the two has made many wonder why.

Most of them think that it is to block Mr. Bandaranaike from becoming the PA's next presidential candidate.

The concept that the SLFP would not survive without the Bandaranaikes is fast diminishing from the party and the quest for a new leadership from among the commoners is emerging.

While maintaining a rapport with the UNP leadership, Mr. Dissanayake had moved fast to undo the wrongs that have been done to certain party stalwarts.

He personally met with Minister Mahinda Wijesekera who has been keeping himself out of cabinet meetings in protest against what was described as an accusatory letter written to him by the President with regard to the rape of forests by some people.

Minister Wijesekera had written back, saying he had only followed the government policy and those who felled trees were registered contractors who supplied timber to the State Timber Corporation.

Minister Dissanayake has now intervened to settle the matter which would have otherwise grown out of proportion.

As it stands today, Mr. Dissanayake appears to be the rising star in the SLFP especially after he has been appointed the General Secretary of the party.

At the SLFP central committee meeting last week, he presented a statement of accounts relating to the annual convention.

The Central Committee also discussed other important matters and of people who are to be appointed to important positions under the People's Alliance government.

They mentioned the names of Former Minister Nanda Mathew and former Parliamentarian Sarath Kongahage in this respect.

In another development, in the aftermath of the Agni Khiela setback, there is re-thinking within the government whether it should recall retired Major General Janaka Perera back to the active service of the Army.

Major General Perera who retired as the Chief of Staff was appointed the Sri Lankan High Commissioner for Australia.

At present there is heavy lobbying to bring Major General Perera as the next Commander of the Sri Lanka Army.

Prime Minister Wickremanayake and several senior cabinet ministers are said to have expressed their views on the matter at a recent meeting.

Major General Perera who is in a relaxed mood after having relinquished his duties would not be in a proper mind to accept the new assignment if offered since he was looking forward to going as a diplomat having retired from his military career.

Such a move may also cause ripples in the military hierarchy as well.

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