The Political Column

07th December 1997

Premier stakes to the fore

By Our Political Correspondent

The main controversy involving the People's Alliance government, today appears to be a battle for Prime Ministerial stakes, with Ministers discussing the matter.

The discussions were based on speculation that Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike would step down due to ill health.

Names of four contenders, Leader of the House Ratnasiri Wickramanayake, Ministers Anuruddha Ratwatte, G.L. Peiris and Lakshman Kadirgamar are being mentioned for the premiership in the event Ms. Bandaranaike retires from active politics.

Apart from these four Ministers, some observers cite the names of few others who also could make claims for the Premiership. They are Minister Lakshman Jayakody, SLFP General Secretary and Minister Dharmasiri Senanayake, PA General Secretary and Minister D.M. Jayaratne and Minister Mahinda Rajapakse and Richard Pathirana.

Dr. Peiris' relentless efforts to push the package and Mr. Kadirgamar's efforts in restoring Lanka's image will pave the way

As for as Mr. Wickramanayake is concerned, he is one of the most senior members of the SLFP and the only Minister from the 1970-77 regime headed by Ms. Bandaranaike to serve in the present Cabinet.

He was appointed the Minister of Plantation Industries in 1975 by Ms. Bandaranaike when the LSSP left the then United Front Government and in March 1977 he was given additional responsibility as the Minister of Justice.

Mr. Wickramanayake became a close associate of both Vijaya and President Chandrika Kumaratunga in the late 70s and in early eighties when the Kumaratungas left the SLFP to form the new Sri Lanka Mahajana Party.

He was also a key figure during the PA campaign in 1994 and was appointed by President Kumaratunga as the Leader of the House, a post that comes with it lot of weight and is considered as a stepping stone to Premiership.

Political observers say a minus point that goes against Mr. Wickramanayake is his approach towards the minority parties and the CWC.

They also point out that Mr. Wickramanayake's opposition to the government political package aimed at resolving the ethnic crisis, could also go against him.

As far as General Ratwatte is concerned, he has become a popular figure among parliamentarians and security forces for his ability to restore government's writ in many parts of the North.

Mr. Wickramanayake: approach towards the minority parties is a minus point

If he could conduct the war in an acceptable manner and bring positive results, he stands a better chance in the contest for the post of Prime Minister. But General is seen by some to lack political maturity and the present Prime Minister is not likely to step down to pave the way for him.

Dr. Peiris and Mr. Kadirgamar are the other two contenders, Dr. Peiris qualifies for this post for his relentless effort to push the package and Mr. Kadirgamar restoring Sri Lanka's image in the international community.

The UNP also would welcome either of these Ministers becoming Prime Minister. But there is a minor hitch in Mr. Kadirgamar's case as his relations with the back benchers are not found to be satisfactory because of his poor Sinhala. His nomination could also be opposed by the Sinhala hardliners because they think that in the absence of the President, a Tamil would become the head of state.

The Sinhala hardliners would also oppose the move to appoint Dr. Peiris because he is committed to the hilt to make the package a reality.

Though Dr. Peiris and Mr. Kadirgamar are acceptable to intellectuals, both are less known to the common man.

Gen Ratwatte: popular among parlimentarians and security forces

Some observers say President Kumaratunga might appoint a total outsider such as Speaker K.B. Ratnayake or even Lakshman Jayakody, a close friend and relative of the Bandaranaikes as the Prime Minister.

Mr. Ratnayake would be a neutral Premier like what D.B. Wijetunga was to President Premadasa.

Besides speculations on the battle for prime ministerial stakes, another matter that kept the PA big wigs busy toiling this week was the move to wrest control of the SLFP. At present Ms. Kumaratunga is the Deputy President of the party and still under her mother's authority as far as the party is concerned.

"I have done much for the SLFP for eight long years, but my work has not been given much recognition. I printed a newspaper all alone raising funds and doing everything possible to uplift the party when it was in the opposition," she told a Central Committee meeting chaired by her mother.

All were expecting to hear something from party President Ms. Bandaranaike on the speculations about the prime ministerial stakes, but she kept mum, apparently allowing it to die a natural death. But what transpired at the Central Committee meeting is President Kumaratunga's enthusiasm to rebuild the SLFP.

She insisted that there should be a house-to-house campaign aimed at winning the next election.

The President was armed with five committee reports which were submitted earlier by five committees appointed by her to propose ways and means to improve the political image of the SLFP.

At present several SLFP grassroot organisations are in very bad shape without proper guidance. Lack of skilled people to re-organize the party was felt by the party hierarchy.

The President therefore insisted on a house-to-house campaign and the theme should be "peace" in keeping with the idea to promote the package.

After spelling out her proposal the President appointed a publicity committee headed by General Ratwatte and comprising D.M. Jayaratne, Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, S.B. Dissanayake and Dharmasiri Senanayake who would function as the Secretary and several others.

Recalling Minister Mahinda Rajapakse's experience in organising 'Yatras' the President proposed that he too be a member of this committee.

The President was making reference to a "Pada Yatra", a peaceful protest march organised by Mr. Rajapakse and others during the UNP regime.

Ms. Kumaratunga also participated in one of the Yatras but supporters of her brother, Anura Bandaranaike vehemently opposed it. Mr. Bandaranaike played a key role in the SLFP during this time as its all-island organizer.

When the President made some references to Mr. Rajapakse and the Pada Yatra, Mr. Rajapakse said he was being targeted for organising these protest marches.

Before the President's arrival at the Central Committee meeting, other members discussed about a matter involving Vasudeva Nanayakkara, a member of the LSSP which is a constituent party of the PA.

Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle told the Committee that the President was disturbed over a statement allegedly made by Mr. Nanayakkara, defaming the President and undermining her authority.

Mr. Fernandopulle said when he spoke to Mr. Nanayakkara he denied it.

"He categorically told me he never had the intention of doing so and that he did not do that."

Mr. Nanayakkara had told Mr. Fernandopulle that it could be the work of an interested party to discredit him.

When the Central Committee was briefed on the matter, Ministers Mahinda Rajapakse and D. M. Jayaratne also said that Mr.. Nanayakkara had given them the same reply when they queried about it.

Mr. Jayaratne said he had written to the LSSP General Secretary Batty Weerakoon, at the request of the President, but Mr. Weerakoon had not responded so far.

The Central Committee took up the position that the party should stick to the procedure and do all the correspondence through proper channels.

The members insisted on the importance of adhering to the procedures in dealing with constituent parties.

Another issue that was very much of public interest dominating any conversation in the recent past was the controversy involving sprint queen Susanthika Jayasinghe.

The matter is now settled after Minister Mahinda Rajapakse mediated in his capacity as the President of the Amateur Athletic Association.

According to reports, the settlement process originated after Shanthini Kongahage entered the scene through her NGO, the Shrama Shakthi.

Some of the actors in this drama were Minister S. B. Dissanayake, his wife Tamara Dissanayake and Susanthika Jayasinghe.

Mrs. Dissanayake who wanted to nip the crisis in the bud and settle it once and for all sought the good offices of the Chairman of the Seva Lanka Organisation, Harsha Kumara Navaratne, a close friend of his.

But the dispute was far too complicated for Mr. Navaratne though he tried his level best. But only very little was happening. In the meantime, Mr. Navaratne left for Europe while the controversy was raging.

When he arrived in Tel Aviv en-route to Europe, he received a call from President's Media Consultant Sanath Gunathilake who was in London, requesting him to intervene in the matter.

Mr. Navaratne also learnt that Mr. Dissanayake was anxious to talk to him over the matter.

In the circumstances he decided to cut short his tour and arrive in Colombo. On arrival he had a meeting with Mr. Dissanayake who insisted on the importance of rescuing both him and Susanthika from the crisis without allowing it to cause further damage to the parties concerned.

He then contacted Ms. Kongahage who had already initiated action to settle the matter with the mediation of Minister Rajapakse.

Mr. Navaratne also met Minister Rajapakse and briefed Mr. Dissanayake on a possible settlement with Susanthika Jayasinghe.

Susanthika on her part laid down certain conditions which included retrieving the passport of her husband which is in the custody of the Panadura Court.

Minister Rajapakse told her that the government could not interfere with the judiciary and she should try legal means to secure her husband Dhammika's passport.

In the meantime, Mr. Dissanayake also talked to Minister Rajapakse and agreed to the conditions laid down in the agreement.

As moves were in progress, Ms. Kongahage briefed UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe on the matter and later informed Minister Rajapakse that Mr. Wickremesinghe would talk to him on the issue.

Mr. Rajapakse and Mr. Wickremesinghe met on the first floor of the Parliamentary Complex, but neither did take up the matter.

In the meantime, behind the scene moves continued and an agreement acceptable to Susanthika and the AAA was drafted.

Final touches to the draft were given at the Seva Lanka office of Mr. Navaratne before it was handed over to Minister Rajapakse.

The same evening Susanthika Jayasinghe was present at the Sports Ministry grounds for practices ending the month old crisis which rocked the sports and political scene of the country.

But this move apparently perturbed UNP General Secretary Gamini Atukorale who first brought the Susanthika Jayasinghe controversy to the limelight.

Mr. Atukorale felt that Mr. Sarath Kongahage should have informed him at every stage of the moves his wife Shanthini was spearheading.

Now Mr. Kongahage may well be back on the firing line. Though he may not be pulled up by the party leader, the general secretary could take him to task for not keeping him informed of the moves to bring Susanthika Jayasinghe back on the track.

Though Minister Dissanayake got out of the Susanthika Jayasinghe crisis, the World Tel affair is still casting its shadow over the Sports Ministry.

Last week, the Cricket Board's Vice President Thilanga Sumathipala met Minister Dissanayake to explore ways and means to dissolve the Board.

Mr. Sumathipala proposed that the Board should be dissolved but one of the Senior Assistant Secretaries of the Ministry advised the Minister against such a decision, saying that it would have adverse consequences.

In the meantime, 36 cricket clubs representing the general body of the BCCSl had requested the Cricket Board President, Upali Dharmadasa to convene a special general meeting to discuss the World Tel affair and has sought legal opinion on this.

In the event of a special general meeting being held, some members are planning to bring in a no-confidence motion against the office bearers, pushing the World Tel affair into a deeper crisis.

In the UNP quarters too, a story of a power struggle is in the air. It involves the Yovun Peramuna, the party's youth body. Youth leaders such as Sajit Premadasa and Navin Dissanayake are seen to under a cloud after the party hierarchy learnt of an alleged plan by both these young politicians to grab power in the Yovun Peramuna. It is alleged that Ananda Kularatne, the chief organiser of the Yovun Peramuna had made use of this opportunity to gun down the up and coming young leaders of the party. There is conjecture of a possible inquiry which may include what transpired at a dinner party hosted by Dhanasiri Amaratunge at Mt. Lavinia.

Besides this, the UNP's two special committees to suggest alternative proposals to the government's constitutional reforms and the lawyers' committee appointed to study the government proposals met briefly to discuss the progress.

On Tuesday the Party leader met two groups of Parliamentarians to discuss the UNP strategies on the reforms.

"Why should we present alternative proposals, when there is a set of proposals by the government. We must keep quiet," former Minister John Amaratunga said.

"How can we do that? We as a responsible political party can't just oppose for the sake of opposing," UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe corrected him.

He insisted on the importance of presenting alternative proposals.

W. J. M. Lokubandara who interjected at this stage said that it would be better to devolve power on a district basis.

But this was opposed by others who said that people would laugh at the UNP, since it has been advocating devolution of power through the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

"We can't do that. We have accepted the Mangala Moonesinghe Committee report under which we agreed to devolve more power," Mr. Wickremesinghe said.

He also said the party's manifesto at the 1994 Presidential Election also spoke of greater devolution and the UNP had to abide by it.

But, Nanda Mathew, Susil Moonesinghe and few others said that the UNP leadership was not bound by Gamini Dissanayake's policy statement in 1994.

"You are a new leader," they said.

"How can I do that? This was made public after I assumed office as the party leader," Mr. Wickremesinghe added.

Looking at Nanda Mathew, he said "It doesn't concern you much because you did not work for the party at that time".

"All of us have to accept what is in the policy statement of 1994. Minister G. L. Peiris is making use of this. He has said on many occasions that he has included several features of Gamini's policy statement in the political package."

Finally, almost all the MP's endorsed the views of the party leader and expressed their vehement opposition to a separate Muslim council in the East.

"But if we agree on an amalgamated North and East, special provisions have to be made to protect the interests of the Muslim community and give special consideration to the security aspect too," Mr. Wickremesinghe said.

Some of the former Chief Ministers said that the UNP flawed when it failed to devolve power properly enabling the Provincial Councils to function smoothly.

But now the UNP's stance is that the government should talk to the LTTE before the implementation of any political solutions, since it feels that, without the LTTE it would be difficult to arrive at any negotiated settlement.

The UNP is now bringing pressure on the government through Western countries to compel it to talk to the LTTE before implementing the package.

The move would also enable UNP to buy time to study the package and come up with alternative suggestions.

The UNP also believes that India too should play a prominent role in this process with New Delhi being consulted if the government finds a solution to the ethnic crisis.

Not only the UNP but many members of the international community also advocate talks with the LTTE.

At a conference on "The Political Economic and Social Reconstruction of Sri Lanka" at the Harvard University last month, the discussions and the presentations centred on the situation in the South in the context of the war.

The conference was organised by the World Peace Foundation.

The consensus at the conference seemed to be that the war is unwinnable; the package is flawed and at an impasse, and the only solution is talks with the LTTE. Without peace, the country cannot move forward, and without agreements the war could go on forever.

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