Political Column
By a special correspondent

Dialogue turns to duel
The President is breathing fire these days. She has apparently decided to take the UNF elephant by its tusks. She says neither she nor the PA she leads will extend support for the 19th amendment that seeks to clip her presidential powers to dissolve parliament.

She did not stop there. She warned the UNF government of the dangers she perceived in the ceasefire agreement with the LTTE. She urged the government to discuss such dangers with the LTTE at tomorrow's talks in Thailand. Her opposition to certain clauses in the ceasefire agreement was nothing new. She made her reservations known soon after the truce was signed in February this year. But bringing it up again on the eve of the peace talks raises many questions.

Besides these matters, the President has acted contrary to the advice of the government in extending the term of the present Army Chief.

Some analysts say all this points to an all-out political war where the first casualty will be the trust people placed in both the President and the UNF government.

But others say the President is merely trying to assert herself and protect the powers of the executive presidency. The irony is the very office, which she says she wants to abolish, holds out hope for her political survival and that of her party.

Now she has apparently decided to make the maximum use of her office to keep the party intact and to crush the UNF government.

On Friday, September 6, the PA parliamentary group met at the Presidential Secretariat. The President was late. Former foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar briefed the MPs on the merits and demerits of the proposed 19th Amendment. He spoke in English while Nimal Siripala de Silva translated his speech into Sinhala.

Mr. Kadirgamar said he agreed with the view that the amendment could split the SLFP, but added it was also an exercise to strengthen the role of the legislature. He said the amendment envisaged a situation whereby parliament by a simple majority could pass a resolution to dissolve itself. He said he felt that such a resolution should be passed with a two-thirds majority or with more than half the members of parliament including those who are not present, voting in favour of it.

While Mr. Kadirgamar was speaking, the President entered the room apologizing for her delay. She immediately began to speak out and hit out at possible defectors.

"I know some people are secretly canvassing for the UNP. The Richards and Fowzies are trying to take some of our MPs to the UNP," she said, causing some sort of unease among the MPs.

Gamapaha District MP Felix Perera, interrupting the President, said, "Madam, if you think they are pinching MPs from the PA, why don't you speak to these people. They have got a raw deal from the party. We must try to redress their grievances."

The President shot back. "What do you know, Felix? These people are trying to split the party. I wanted to speak to Jeyaraj (Fernandopulle) and sent three messages to him, but he had told my emissary that he had nothing to talk with me."

It seemed that the President had not spotted Mr. Fernandopulle at the group meeting. He was seated several rows behind.

As soon as the President ended her speech, Mr. Fernandopulle rose to her comment.

"Madam, don't tell 'pattapal' lies. None of your officers brought any message to me," he said.

"I didn't mention your name," the President is reported to have said.

As the President-Fernandopulle dialogue was turning out to be acidulous Anura Bandaranaike chipped in to say. "No one will leave the party. Jeyaraj, Fowzie and others have worked hard to build the party. We must give them their due place," he said.

An angry President retorted. "Ours is a hell of a party! People leave the party after getting various help from it. I don't care, let anyone leave the party," she said.

It was the backbenchers who offered some solace to the President on that day. MPs such as Thilina Tennakoon and Kumara Dassanayake assured the President of their support and said that under no circumstances would they leave the party.

In the meantime, a disciplinary committee of the SLFP has ruled that there is a prima facie case against Galle District MP and former minister Richard Pathirana who told state television Rupavahini that he would support the 19th amendment. Tomorrow, the SLFP central committee will appoint a three-member sub committee to recommend disciplinary action against Mr. Pathirana.

But it won't be that easy. The proposed amendment contains a clause whereby political parties are barred from expelling MPs, who vote according to their conscience.

UNF sources claim that more than 20 PA MPs would extend support for the amendment. To support their claim, they cite lobby meetings certain PA MPs hold with caution.

It is said that at one such meeting, one MP warned the others of tale-carriers.

The UNF getting 20 PA votes will decide the future political course of this country for the next five years.

The President will be reduced to a puppet once she is stripped of her powers to dissolve parliament. The UNF government with its parliamentary majority could politically blackmail her by threatening to cut off funds for the presidency.

Besides, the survival of the peace process and the UNF government's economic restructuring programme depend on the passage of the amendment. It is because of these reasons that the UNF cabinet met this week on two consecutive days to take a final decision on the amendment which poses a do-or-die challenge to government.

With a meeting between President Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe becoming a non-event, the UNF decided to go solo on the 19th amendment. Accordingly a special cabinet meeting was convened. As expected, the President did not turn up.

The cabinet first took up a proposal by Finance Minister K. N. Choksy to release a Toyota Carina car for the former first lady Elina Jayewardene.

It was unanimously approved. The cabinet then took up the 19th amendment, but chose to ignore a note the President had sent, informing the cabinet of her opposition to the amendment.

Minister Rauff Hakeem raised an objection, saying he was not in agreement with section 4. According to section 4, the president is empowered to dissolve parliament if the government is defeated in a vote of no-confidence.

But she is prevented from doing so if a new prime minister has been nominated to take over the government. He called for the repeal of this section, saying it weakened the checks and balances system in the constitution. Minister Rajitha Senaratne said he also supported the repeal of section 4.

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe said that the amendment had been formulated taking into consideration opposition view - points. However, he agreed to repeal section 4.

The cabinet met again on Wednesday. Liquor licences were the topic the cabinet discussed first. Ministers took up a cabinet paper that called for the withdrawal of liquor licences issued to some 120 people. The ministers agreed that 40 licences should be withdrawn while a decision should be taken against some 80 licence holders after an inquiry.

The cabinet also decided to present the Appropriation Bill on October 8 and budget proposals on November 6 with 13 days for the debate.

Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe said the Opposition was seeking 26 days for the debate. Mr. Wickremesinghe said he saw no problem in it and asked Mr. Samarasinghe to fix the number of days in consultation with the opposition leader.

It was usual business till Minister Ravi Karunanayake poured out his grievance. He asked whether a UNF government was really in office? "The President extends the term of service chiefs to whomsoever she wishes. What are we here for?" he lamented.

Responding, Defence Minister Tilak Marapana said his ministry recommended a short extension for the Army chief but the President made it one year.

Rajitha Senaratne said the government should check the President while the Prime Minister observed that when the government recommended a one-year extension, the President made it three years.

He was obviously referring to the extension the Navy chief Daya Sandagiri got recently. Mr. Wickremesinghe said his government wanted to appoint Army Chief Lionel Balagalle to the post of Joint Chief of Staff.

Minister Senaratne said there were allegations against the Navy Chief. Minister Marapana said that since the matter was before court, they should await its ruling.

Apart from the 19th amendment, the government is pushing ahead vigorously with its peace initiative. Come tomorrow, the whole world will be turning its attention on the Thai resort town of Sattahip where the government delegations will meet an LTTE delegation in a bid to end Sri Lanka's 20 year crisis.

Some members of the two delegations met at an international seminar recently in Switzerland. The seminar was attended by the Presidents of Yugoslavia and Mali, the Prime Minister of Canada, the Defence Minister of India and Norwegian special peace envoy Erik Solheim.

Those who spoke about the Lankan crisis were Minister G. L. Peiris, Charitha Ratwatte, Ajith Cabraal, Sarath Amunugama, Rohan Edrisinha and LTTE legal expert V. Rudrakumar, who is included in the LTTE delegation for the Thai talks.

Minister Peiris said that his government was ready to go to any extent in devolving power as long as the exercise did not threaten Sri Lanka's national integrity.

Mr. Rudrakumar said no major issues would be discussed at the first round of talks but the eastern Muslim question could be taken up for discussion.

Before the Sri Lankan delegation for the Thai talks - Ministers G. L. Peiris, Milinda Moragoda, Rauff Hakeem and peace secretariat chief Bernard Gunatilleke - departed, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe briefed them on the government agenda. After this meeting Minister Moragoda met US Ambassador Ashley Wills and Indian High Commissioner Nirupam Sen to inform them of the government position.

After the talks in Thailand, Mr. Moragoda will fly to New York where he would meet Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and the duo would later meet Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and brief him on the developments.

Based on the Sunday Lankadeepa political column

Back to Top
 Back to Columns  

Copyright © 2001 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd. All rights reserved.