The historic agreement between the ruling PA and UNP for a common approach in solving the ethnic conflict has been hailed by almost all political parties and other groups that seek a just and peaceful settlement. After several rounds of talks between the PA and the UNP through the mediation of Britains Deputy Foreign Minister Liam Fox, the two leaders, President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Ranil Wickremesinghe, exchanged letters where they agreed to stand on a common platform to solve the minority Tamil problem.
Following the exchange of letters Mr. Wickremesinghe met his partys policy-making working committee and the parliamentary group to brief them on the agreement.
This was also discussed at the Parliamentary Select Committee on Constitutional reforms on Wednesday.
UNPs Tyronne Fernando fired the first question relating to the proceedings of the Select Committee in view of the agreement.
He asked whether it was not important to establish a link between the Select Committee and any possible talks with the LTTE in view of the consensus reached between the two major parties.
Mr. Fernando referring to the Select Committee process said, This is not an academic exercise. When formulating the Republican Constitutions, we adopted the right process. But now the situation is different. We have a major terrorist problem. Our aim is to achieve peace.
He said he felt that the LTTE had to be a part of the negotiating process.
Now with the agreement between the two major parties, there is the possibility of the LTTE coming into the process, he added.
Therefore Mr. Fernando said the Select Committee could not work in isolation.
UNPs A.C.S. Hameed at this stage said it was not still clear whether there would be talks with the LTTE. If there were talks, there should be a link with the Select Committee.
Committee Chairman G.L. Peiris said recent developments would not affect the ongoing Select Committee process.
Mr. Fernando raising another important point, asked Minister Peiris why he released the eighteen chapters of the draft constitution when there was no consensus to do so.
It is very unfair, since there was no authority given by the Select Committee to do so, he said.
Dr. Peiris replying said that as the Chairman and member of the Select Committee he had a role to play. When he indicated on a previous occasion that he was going to release some of the chapters there was no objection by the Committee, he pointed out.
At this stage, Mr. Hameed said all parties had agreed that whatever decisions reached by the Committee would be referred to their respective parties for approval first.
Former Minister Ronnie de Mel also said it would have been okay if Dr. Peiris released those chapters with a note as to who agreed and who did not, making clear to the people that it was not unanimous.
Mr. de Mel was apparently referring to the difficulties that might crop up when the draft was put to the UNPs Working Committee.
the DUN (Lalith) Front representative in the Select Committee, Ravi Karunanayake, wanted to know whether the Select Committee process was a complementary or conflicting one in view of the PA-UNP agreement.
Now theres a new development. There has been an agreement signed by the two parties which we appreciate very much. But now what role does the Select Committee play? he asked
He said he was posing this question as the political package had been marketed as a process of trying to marginalise the LTTE.
There is an understanding and an agreement between the government and the opposition to talk to the LTTE. What assistance does this process (Select Committee) provide? Mr. Karunanayake queried.
He also asked whether it would serve any purpose to present the package in Parliament before the budget.
Mr. Karunanayakes view was that any final draft of the proposed constitutional reforms should be made after talks with the main parties to the conflict.
However Rauff Hakeem of the SLMC and Neelan Thiruchelvam of the TULF expressed the view that it was a complementary process and the Select Committee should continue.
Dr. Thiruchelvam qualified his view by saying that a link should be established between the Select Committee and any negotiations with the LTTE.
Mr. Karunanayake said most Tamil parties felt that the LTTE should be persuaded to get involved in a dialogue.
Thus it would be appropriate to review the role of the Select Committee.
Dr. Peiris then asked Mr. Karunanayake whether the Select Committee process should be suspended or not.
Mr. Karunanayake said if there were talks with the LTTE, the Select Committee should know the substance of matters discussed.
Thus the Select Committee process should continue though Dr. Peiris insists he has the right to table the draft constitution in Parliament before the budget.
Finally, the members of the Select Committee agreed that any talks between the government and the LTTE would cover not only Constitutional reforms, or devolution package, but also issues such as rehabilitation, movement of troops and supply of essential items to the LTTE-occupied areas.
However, they all agreed that there should be a proper link between possible talks and the Select Committee process.
Soon after this, Mr. de Mel called for the setting up of an independent Election Commission comprising three members with wide powers to conduct clean elections.
He also called for a permanent Police Commission and a caretaker government under the Chief Justice during election times.
It must be noted that the UNP did not show much interest in similar proposals when they were made by DUNLF leader Srimani Athulathmudali some years ago.
Dr. Peiris however agreed to discuss these and told the UNP to submit draft proposals.
The SLMCs Rauff Hakeem then raised another issue. He said the PA had pledged in its manifesto to introduce the German electoral system where elections are held under both the First-past-the-post and PR systems on a 50-50 basis.
Minister Peiris agreed to discuss that too when the Select Committee meets after a months break.
During this period, minority parties such as the TULF and the SLMC are scheduled to meet the UNP leader to set out several issues regarding devolution.
The Select Committee is scheduled to meet again on May 15.
The PA-UNP agreement was also discussed at the UNP Working Committee and the Parliamentary Group which endorsed it with no objections.
Most UNP MPs seem to be supporting the agreement mainly because they are not particularly keen on any snap general election at this stage.
The UNP leadership has also announced three new appointments to the Working Committee.
Mr. Wickremesinghe said he was appointing three prominent Tamils to the Working Committee since the Tamil electorate was responding well to the new UNP policy.
But many analysts are wondering on what basis D. Swaminathan, Wimala Chandran and T. Kathiresan were appointed to the apex body.
Mr. Swaminathan was former governor of the Western Province for a short period.
The Hingurana Sugar Company of which he was the Chairman, has run into a financial mess. It was later acquired by the government because of bad management after being blacklisted by the Peoples Bank.
A case is pending against this company for non-payment of EPF contributions.
Many UNP insiders say Mr. Swaminathan is not popular even among the Tamils and they have reservations regarding his appointment.
Mr. Swaminathan is incidentally a close relation of Pathma Maharaja who was one time Additional Secretary to President Chandrika Kumaratunga.
The other appointee, Attorney Wimala Chandran, is married to a Sinhalese while the third, T. Kathiresan, also a lawyer, is a member of the Central Provincial Council.
Mr. Kathiresan had defected from the CWC and joined M.S. Sellasamy in 1993.
Thus he is a political opponent of CWC leader S. Thondaman, and his appointment to the Working Committee is obviously not likely to please the estate leader who got a beating at last months local polls.
It might mean the UNP is taking a tougher line towards the CWC and any future electoral deal would have to be more on the UNPs terms.
But the Thondaman issue was not really a topic of discussion at the UNPs Working Committee meeting though some remarks were made by Susil Moonesinghe and Dr. Stanley Kalpage. They pointed out Mr. Thondaman was still in Parliament as a member of the UNP on the national list and he should be removed.
Though it was not a full review, the Working Committee also discussed certain issues relating to the local government elections when the party fared relatively poorly.
Former Minister John Amaratunga called for a condemnation of polls rigging while Uva Chief Minister Percy Samaraweera, wanted new election laws.
Mr. Wickremesinghe said the party should press its demand for an independent Election Commission. He said he had requested A.C.S. Hameed and constitutional expert K.N. Choksy to work out specific details of such a Commission.
It also appears that General Secretary Gamini Atukorale is being targeted as among those responsible for the UNPs major losses at the local polls.
Some speculation on this matter has been sparked off by the appointment of veteran Daham Wimalasena as Secretary Elections and Charitha Ratwatte as Co-ordinating Secretary.
One charge against Mr. Atukorale is that the party was beaten even in his electorate of Nivitigala and fared badly in the whole of Sabaragamuwa province, which had traditionally been with the UNP.
It is also clear that the leadership is getting ready to revamp and re-organise the party structure in the aftermath of the election defeat.
Meanwhile, the PA which scored a convincing victory found it difficult to come to a deal with its allies in selecting the heads of the councils.
In addition, a continuing battle between Minister A.H.M. Fowzie and M.H.M. Ashraff is making things more difficult for the PA.
Mr. Fowzie is known to have spoken against moves by the SLMC to get top positions in some local councils. He said the interest of SLFP Muslims should also be looked into.
Eventually, President Kumaratunga said a compromise needed to be found as she felt the SLMC has helped get a lot of Muslim votes for the PA. But Mr. Fowzie was not convinced, alleging that one SLMC member had even gone to the extent of stabbing an SLFP supporter in Gallinna, Kandy in the presence of a Cabinet Minister.
The President looked baffled for some time, while the Minister seemed to have mixed up the report.
Minister Fowzie got even more embarrassed when a senior Cabinet Minister also argued the same case for the SLMC.
Eventually the SLMC also had to compromise on its original position where it claimed top slots in three councils Matale Municipal Council and local bodies of Beruwela and Puttalam.
Earlier, the SLMC members had said at a politburo meeting that the SLMC members should quit all governmental posts if its demand was not met. They said, however, the party should continue to support the PA in parliament.
The SLMC politburo, finally agreed to one number 1 slot and three number number 2 slots in the councils after a meeting between Minister Ashraff and President Kumaratunga. The compromise formula was reached at this meeting.
At the SLFP Central Committee meeting the President also made it clear that she wouldnt allow any relative of a minister or MP to hold No. 1 or No. 2 slots in any local body.
Minister S.B. Dissanayakes brother, Deputy Minister D.P. Wickramesinghes son and Minister Fowzies son were thus made ineligible for any top posts in local bodies.
At the PA Executive Committee meeting later, the Communist Party asked that it be given No. 1 slot in the Matara Urban Council.
In the Matara district the Communist Party said it had secured a high number of preference votes in several councils but it was given very much less.
Some CP members feel Minister Mangala Samaraweera who led the Matara campaign for the PA had given too many places to SLFPers.
The bone of contention was the Matara Urban Council but Mr. Samaraweera was not prepared to give in.
Mr. Samaraweera said the appointing a CP man to head the Matara Urban Council would be seen as a direct insult to him. So the SLFPers were not prepared to concede Matara to the CP and accused Deputy Minister Chandrasena Gajadeera of organising protest campaigns to force the PA to give into the demand.
Mr. Samaraweera said Mr. Gajadeera should ensure that the law was not broken by protesters but the latter said, What can I do, they did not listen to me.
The President stood firm saying Mr. Gajadeera should take the responsibility without giving excuses.
It is alleged that Minister Samaraweera had promised that whoever who got the highest peferences would be given the number one slot in the councils in the area under his purview.
But Mr. Samaraweera insists he never made such a promise which was contrary to general PA policy of taking not only the preference votes but also the ability of the candidate into consideration. However after a lengthy argument between the SLFP top rung and the CP represented by D.E.W. Gunasekara and Raja Collure, the PA agreed to concede Kamburupitiya to the CP.
During this argument Minister Indika Gunawardena of the CP kept quiet until the Sithavakapura issue came up.
Mr. Gunawardena was able to convince the PA hierarchy and the President agreed to allocate No. 1 slot of the Sitawakapura Pradeshiya Sabhawa to the CP. However she asked why they couldnt win the Sitawakapura Urban Council.
Mr. Gunawardena claimed he was kept away by the SLFP organisers in the area.
A disturbing factor at the PA Executive Committee meeting was that most SLFPers were not prepared to accommodate smaller parties and give them the due place in line with the number of preferences polled by their candidates, party sources said.
However, the SLMP, the old party of President Kumaratunga was given a better deal when she conceded three councils to it.
SLMCs Rauff Hakeem made an important observation saying, the SLFP had to be more magnanimous in accommodating smaller parties. The President responded by saying she thought all were on an equal basis.
Soon after that the SLMC presented its case and Minister Ashraff for over half an hour explained to the PA as to how they secured the Muslim vote which would have otherwise gone to the UNP.
The SLMC told the President of several media statements made by Minister Fowzie where he had described the SLMC as a communal party.
This is unbecoming of a Cabinet Minister and it does not augur well for our relations, the SLMC leader said.
Ms. Kumaratunga assured she would study the statements in question and clarify matters.
She also said she was considering disciplinary action against Ananda Wasantha Nanayakkara who made some controversial statements after he polled the highest number of preferences in the Independent Group which was led by ex-Mayor K. Ganeshalingam.
With all those issues coming up, the PA meeting went on past midnight.
Now speculation is growing as to whether the government will go for a snap general election. It appears that there is a lively debate on the matter among Cabinet Ministers. Some have proposed an election within three months. This proposal was discussed at a gathering hosted by Minister Samaraweera recently. But there is evidently no unanimity and the matter remains there.
Go to the Situation Report
Return to the Editorial/Opinion contents page