The UNP Parliamentary group has had a busy schedule during the last week. It met thrice under the chairmanship of Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Two of these meetings were to discuss the resolution moved by the government on Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike's civic rights issue.
At the second meeting on Monday at 8.00 a.m. at the Parliamentary Complex, Mr. Wickremesinghe said from the opinions expressed at the previous meeting, it was clear that the predominant view was that the group should oppose the resolution. And thus he would be making a short statement in the House and thereafter the UNP MPs should withdraw.
Mr. Wickremesinghe said this decision would not be binding on Anura Bandaranaike since he had voted against the resolution in 1980, and stressed that this was a special case and would not constitute a precedent. No one should be able to cite this as an example in the future.
During the weekend, Mr. Wickremesinghe met former President J. R. Jayewardene to discuss the matter at length.
It was President Jayewardene who masterminded the move to strip Prime Minister Bandaranaike of her civic rights in 1980.
At the meeting with the Opposition Leader, Mr. Jayewardene agreed that the best way out was to stage a walk-out after making a brief statement on the matter.
The former president at the same time did not forget to scorn the government for giving an empty box to Ms. Bandaranaike as a birthday gift.
He told Mr. Wickremesinghe, "They are going to give Ms. Bandaranaike a birthday gift. But is it a gift? When she opens it, she will find that it is an empty box".
Mr. Jayewardene was obviously referring to the legal effect of the government's resolution to exonerate Ms. Bandaranaike, which many political analysts agree does not give any redress to her but has only a symbolic and historic value.
The UNP is satisfied that by staying away from Parliament it has prevented any mud slinging during the debate. It is also of the opinion that by allowing Mr. Bandaranaike to vote with the government, it has prevented moves by interested parties in the PA to break the relationship between the Prime Minister and her son Anura. Such a link, the UNP hopes, would help it to solicit political support when necessary.
Prime Minister Bandaranaike herself was very much concerned about this debate and she wanted to make sure that the debate would not be a mud-slinging exercise.
In the circumstances she had wanted only the three Lakshmans in Parliament, Ministers Lakshman Jayakody, G. L. Peiris and Lakshman Kadirgamar, to speak on the resolution.
Political analysts are of the view that Anura Bandaranaike had apparently influenced the mother because of his position in the opposition UNP.
However, the whole debate turned out to be much more than that Ms. Bandaranaike or her son Anura expected, when Deputy Minister Maithripala Sirisena made an attempt to criticise the role of Mr. Bandaranaike.
At the PA group meeting held on Monday, the Sirima resolution figured prominently.
Minister Mahinda Rajapakse asked as to whether they should not get the two thirds majority and correct the error rather than just passing a resolution for more mental satisfaction. He told the government group to ponder over what he said.
Mr. Rajapakse probably would have made this comment since Parliament in 1980 approved a resolution stripping Ms. Bandaranaike of her civic rights by a two-thirds majority.
Minister Lakshman Jayakody agreed but said under the present circumstances with the limited Parliamentary power they wield, that was all they could do.
DUNLF's Ravi Karunanayake came closer to what Mr. Rajapakse said. Mr. Karunanayake while appreciating and supporting the move by the government to exonerate Ms. Bandaranaike asked whether Parliament was creating precedence on the matter. He asked whether this would produce motions by future Parliaments to exonerate people found guilty by commissions in the same manner.
Minister G. L. Peiris however dismissed it by saying that you should have all the credentials to pass such a resolution.
After all these questions were posed Minister S. B. Dissanayake chose to reply Mr. Rajapakse.
He said it bore historic and political significance because the present Parliament was determined to rectify a grave injustice caused to the Prime Minister by an earlier Parliament.
Minister Dissanayake said only Parliament could rectify an injustice committed by a previous Parliament and this resolution is forwarded with that purpose in mind. "The UNP also could participate in doing justice to a distinguished personality, but if it decides to withdraw from the debate, it shows, that the UNP still doesn't want to rectify its own wrong doings", Minister Dissanayake said.
He also had a tilt with Minister Kingsley Wickramaratne on Wednesday over the Trade Minister's statement that he would be compelled to import potatoes if the upcountry potato growers try to create an artificial shortage in the market for a price increase.
Mr. Dissanayake being a representative from Hanguranketha had to face the protesting potato growers and took up the matter later at the Cabinet with Minister Wickramaratne.
Apart from the Sirima resolution issue, the other matter which drew the attention of opposition political parties was the government's move to extend the state of emergency to cover the whole country.
That the emergency was to be declared countrywide had come to the notice of UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe on Monday evening.
He immediately summoned a meeting of the UNP group for Tuesday noon.
Mr. Wickremesinghe also skipped a Select Committee meeting on constitutional reforms scheduled for 10.00 a.m. on Tuesday and asked his colleagues, Wijeyapala Mendis and K.N. Choksy, also not to attend the meeting in view of the latest development.
Instead they met at the Opposition Leader's Office in Parliament along with former Speaker M.H. Mohamed to discuss as to what they should tell the Parliamentary group in view of this development.
Mr. Wickremesinghe who was keen to speak on the recent incidents at Anamaduwa made his speech early morning to discuss the latest issue.
At the hurriedly summoned group meeting Mr. Wickremesinghe said it was not necessary to declare a countrywide state of emergency.
He said after Anamaduwa, the government was likely to use the state of emergency to unleash more violence against the UNP.
"They can tamper with the election laws by means of emergency regulations," Mr. Wickremesinghe said.
He told the group it had been so far the practice to use the emergency debate to voice protests on various issues but the group had abstained when it came to voting. As regards this new development, the party may have to review the position and that's why he had summoned the group.
At this stage Mr. Hameed said that the extension of the emergency was a complete reversal of what the PA told the nation during the elections and subsequently in Parliament. The government's intentions in extending the emergency were in doubt and that the UNP should vote against the motion.
At this stage, some members queried as to what impact would the state of emergency have on the local elections.
Former Minister K.N. Choksy replying said that under the election laws as it presently stands, the nominations would have to be called before the end of this month, to all the local authorities except the councils in the East.
The nomination process and the conclusion of the polls have to be completed by the June 30, he said.
"Possibly the government doesn't want to do this and it may bring emergency regulations because they can supersede any existing laws except the Constitution."
Under the circumstances there are three possibilities, he said.
Firstly the government can extend the term of office of all the local bodies. Secondly, they may extend the term of office of some local authorities and stagger the elections, so that they could hold elections in the areas where they are strong.
Thirdly they may wait till the term of office of all local authorities come to an end and introduce emergency laws to appoint special commissions for all the local authorities.
Mr. Choksy said the government may vest the power of appointing Special Commissioners in the Central Government and postpone the elections in the pretext of the present security situation in the country.
Remember, he said, that the local government is a devolved subject and that the Special Commissioners have to be appointed by the Provincial Councils.
But if the government moves to vest that power with the Central Government and appoint Special Commissioners it would be unconstitutional and it should be challenged in the Supreme Court.
Interjecting, Party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe said that in 1991 UNP consulted all the parties in Parliament and held elections in one day. The UNP should now insist that the government does the same.
M.H. Mohamed and Sarath Amunugama said the party should seek the support of the civil rights movement to fight the government's dictatorial decision.
Kurunegala district MP Jayawickrama Perera said this issue must be internationalised. Lakshman Yapa Abeywardene of the Matara district said the Minister of Local Government had right through assured the country that the elections would be held according to schedule.
At the UNP Working Committee, meeting on Tuesday, Mr. Wickremesinghe said UNP-controlled local authorities throughout the country should hold a meeting as soon as possible and protest against any move by the government to alter the existing election laws through emergency.
The developments over the extension of emergency and the voting are something that should have already angered the President. When the division bell was rung it was Minister Richard Pathirana who called for a decision by name. It was obvious that the government wanted to know its friends and foes.
The LSSP MPs, except Athauda Seneviratne, were absent at the voting.
Vasudeva Nanayakkara was in the House and left just before the division.
The TULF which has also been very close to the PA, though not a constituent partner, smarting under the President's recent assaults on it chose to vote with the opposition.
However the EPDP, PLOTE, TELO and the CWC. stood firm with the government as they have always done in the past.
One cannot fail to observe the significance of a Minister in the Cabinet, Bernard Soysa, joining his colleagues and keeping away from voting.
"Even if this is the first crack in the PA platform there is plenty of cement to patch it up," commented a UNP stalwart.
There are other developments too. The government has now decided to stagger out the local polls.
This would give the government an opportunity to go for safe districts first. Its strategy is seen in some quarters as a gamble. If the government should win as planned in the safe districts, to a great extent the strategy would pay off. But if it faces a setback in these districts, then the winds maybe against the government.
However, the strategy to stagger out the elections, no doubt, shows the political sharpness of the President.
At the Cabinet meeting on Wednesday, the matter concerning the LSSP stand on the extension of emergency was taken up. Minister Bernard Soysa expressed his sincere regrets to President Chandrika Kumaratunga for failing to co-operate with the government.
President Kumaratunga was planning to make a statement on the imposition of countrywide emergency after agreeing with the constituent parties.
The main idea behind the imposition of a countrywide state of emergency is to postpone the local government elections scheduled to be held before June 30.
The SLFP Central Committee also discussed matters pertaining to the local government elections at length when it met last week.
A majority of the members held the view that the elections should be held as scheduled. But they agreed that the elections should be held on a staggered basis due to security reasons.
They observed that there were no sufficient strength at local police stations to man an election and decided the polls should be held on a staggered basis in a bid to give maximum possible security.
It is likely that the PA will choose the plantation sector as its first priority to hold local elections. But it also feels there are matters to be sorted out before that to secure the co-operation of the CWC.
In the circumstances some government ministers have urged Plantations Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake to settle plantation problems with Minister Thondaman amicably so that the government would be able to solicit the CWC support at the local elections.
However Mr. Thondaman will play his cards to obtain the maximum. The PA however, hopes the CWC would agree to contest the local elections under a common symbol which the CWC is yet to consider.
At present the CWC is pushing the line that it should contest separately without coming into an alliance with the PA or the UNP. But if the CWC does agree to contest under a common symbol, it would only be done after making a complete assessment as to how the party could benefit from this exercise.
However, the CWC views the government's move to extend the emergency countrywide as an attempt to stifle the estate strike organised by the CWC for April 21, besides the other motives of the government.
But it is likely that the government would take serious note of the impending strike because it would further cripple the already limping economy and the plantation sector firms would definitely invite the attention of the government to the matter.
Minister Thondaman who firmly stands on the way would exploit this situation to strike a deal with the government whereby he would once again emerge a powerful Minister as he was during UNP regime.
In another move, the government on Wednesday moved to approve the Letter of Intent of the controversial Galle Port development project.
When the Letter of Intent was forwarded to the Cabinet the previous week, Minister M.H.M. Ashraff was advised by the President to submit the Cabinet paper along with the L.O.C. Accordingly Mr. Ashraff presented his Cabinet paper to obtain approval to issue the Letter of Intent to the Mott Macdonalds and U.K.-China Consortium. The issue created a controversy in the country and provoked the UNP to bring a no-confidence motion against Mr. Ashraff.
The Mott Macdonalds along with UK-China Consortium and Ham Interbettan of Holland will take another six months to do a financial feasibility study before embarking on this massive project on a Build- Operate and Transfer basis.
In this backdrop and political upheavals, the country would look forward for another eventful week after the Avurudu holidays.
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