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The Political Column

21st February 1999

CBK will sack miscreants

By our Political Correspondent

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With five weeks to go for the provincial elections, both the PA and the UNP appear to be changing their campaign strategy.

Neither party is keen to announce its chief ministerial candidate.

The UNP has still not disclosed its No. 1 for the Central Province while the PA is also mum.

Many UNPers assume that it would be Keheliya Rambukwella for the Central Province but nothing official is being said. Similarly, PA members are also not sure since the party has fielded a second eleven for most provinces. But it is said that some Cabinet Ministers have expressed willingness to come forward as Chief Ministers if the PA wins the provinces.

In the Western Province the battle will be between the last Chief Minister Susil Premajayanth and Colombo's Mayor Karu Jayasuriya, both candidates of high calibre. Mr. Jayasuriya does not paste posters for himself and is disturbed that other candidates are doing so.

In the PA, it is alleged that Minister A.H.M. Fowzie's son Nowfer is on a poster spree sparking off a row among party candidates.

In this backdrop, Colombo's Deputy Mayor Omar Kamil contacted election officials to find out what action the Council could take about the posters. A Deputy Commissioner told him that the Election Commissioner should direct the police to remove the posters. But the Commissioner is out of the country and no one it seems is ready to antagonise PA politicians who are indulging in a poster war in the city as well as in the outstations.

Mr. Premjayanth also does not believe in putting up posters or displaying his number but says he has no option in this war of preferences.

A gentleman by nature, Mr. Premjayanth believes his opponent Mr. Jayasuriya is also a gentleman, but other candidates are violating the law.

Mr.Jayasuriya, over the past few years has built up his image in the country as well as in the UNP as an honest politician who respects democratic norms. Even among PA politicians he commands so much respect that the Dehiwela-Mt. Lavinia Mayor at a recent function attended by the Colombo Mayor and his Deputy said Mr.Jayasuriya could be assured of his vote. When the Deputy Mayor of Colombo pointed out that the Mayor of Dehiwela-Mt. Lavinia should not make such statements publicly, he said he was not bothered and deplored the manner in which the PA robbed the votes of Wayamba. "I am not bothered or scared to tell this publicly," he said.

The bitterest battle in the Western Province might be in the Gampaha District where Anura Bandaranaike would lead the campaign for the UNP in the heartland of the Bandaranaike family.

But more than Mr. Bandaranaike or Mr. Jayasuriya, the elections are important for UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. His position as party leader could be challenged if he fails to lead the UNP in securing victory in most of the councils.

Among non-party people, the big question or fear is whether we would see a repeat of Wayamba though the goons who wrecked the January 25 elections would not be able to act as blatantly as they did because all monitors and the international community would be keeping a close eye. If we see another Wayamba, it would be like a massive April fool's day joke by politicians who fool themselves into thinking they could fool all the people on April 1.

Meanwhile, the agitation for a change of the election date is continuing, not only by Christians and Muslims, but also by garment factory owners.

Christians fear their holiest day - Good Friday, April 2 might see a curfew as often happens on the day after elections. Muslims say trouble usually flares up on the day after elections and it happens to be Friday which is a day of prayer. In addition, it is the Haj season and thousands of Muslims would be in Mecca.

Factory owners fear that if workers are given voting leave on Thursday April 1, and a curfew is imposed on Friday, no work would be possible till Monday April 5, while some workers might extend their vacation to cover the national New Year too.

In the circumstances, the Commissioner might consider a fresh date for elections, but within the three month deadline imposed by the Supreme Court.

In another election related development, Mr. Wickremesinghe had a luncheon meeting with three key diplomats at the Hotel Lanka Oberoi with adviser Milinda Moragoda also being present. The diplomats included the British High Commissioner David Tatham, Indian High Commissioner Shiv Shanker Menon and US Charge d' affaires Richard Smythe.

Mr. Wickremesinghe again condemned the violence perpetrated by the PA on the Opposition depriving thousands of voters of their basic rights. He said there was a need to launch a massive campaign to save democracy and this would be the objective of the UNP's movement for democracy. Although the diplomats expressed direct support, they shared the UNP's view that there was a need to revive and strengthen democracy. When one diplomat asked whether President Kumaratunga might have been unaware of what happened in Wayamba, Mr. Wickremesinghe said whatever was the case she as the President must take full responsibility.

He said PA goons even robbed his estate in Kuliyapitiya in the aftermath of the Wayamba elections.

The diplomats expressed concern over the government's note warning them not to express their views on the elections.

Again on Friday, Mr. Wickremasinghe met European ambassadors while the President is also expected to meet diplomats soon.

Another controversy

Meanwhile the government created another controversy by appointing an outsider as the Secretary General of Parliament. This is the first time an outsider has been appointed to this high office overlooking the Deputy Secretary General.

Deputy Secretary General Priyani Wijesekera is known to have wide knowledge and experience in parliamentary affairs, having joined the parliamentary service after a stint at the Ministry of Justice as a legal officer. Her services were recognized by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association when she was selected to write a book on 'The Role of Parliaments and Governments in the next Millennium". Many observers see this as a rare honour both for Ms. Wijesekera and the country.

Overlooking her, Judicial Services Commission Secretary, Dhammika Kitulegoda was appointed Secretary General of Parliament, going against parliamentary traditions.

The UNP charged that within a month of an overt assault on the electoral process, the government had blatantly violated the hallowed traditions of parliamentary practice. It said constitutional provisions on the appointment of Secretary General of Parliament reiterates the position that existed under the Soulbury Constitution and the first Republic Constitution. "It is to be observed that the Governor General and successive heads of governments religiously observed this practice. It is a matter of great regret that President Kumaratunga has however, in her new characteristic dictatorial style, kicked aside all parliamentary traditions and conventions by appointing a complete outsider. It must be emphasized that even the Speaker had not been consulted in this matter", the UNP said.

Though the election front and other matters are embroiled in disputes, some progress appears to have been made in efforts to solve the biggest issue - the ethnic conflict. The meeting between several top-ranking members of the LTTE and a delegation of religious dignitaries and other eminent persons from Colombo is seen as a breakthrough.

There is much speculation as to what would happen next. It is known that the delegation of dignitaries visited the North with the blessings of the government. The Department of Information promptly organized a news conference on their return. But there are no signs of a definite development yet. However, the government is watching the situation and trying to build up a rapport before having talks with the LTTE, a senior Cabinet Minister told this column. The UNP's position in the meantime is that the government should talk to the Tigers. The UNP welcomes this move, a senior UNP parliamentarian and former minister said. But the big question is whether the government would talk to the LTTE. As it appears, there could be a positive response since the LTTE has now successfully pushed the ball back into the government's court.

'Will there be a ceasefire or will there be talks while the war is on?' are questions that are being handled with care. The government is not keen to bring in a foreign facilitator as requested by the LTTE. But it appears the government would be more comfortable if the delegation of religious dignitaries acted as facilitators. In the meantime, Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar is on record as having told an Asian TV channel that the government would not talk to the LTTE. On an earlier occasion, too, President Kumaratunga laid down certain conditions for talks between the government and the LTTE while the opposition leader called for unconditional talks.

Amidst all these controversies the Central Committee of the SLFP met on Wednesday at Temple Trees to discuss the forthcoming Provincial elections. At the beginning, Uva Governor Ananda Dassanayake presided in the absence of Party President Sirima Bandaranaike or President Kumaratunga.

Chief Government Whip, Richard Pathirana speaking first condemned all partymen who spoke against the victory of the PA at the Wayamba elections. He said such people were more concerned building their images rather than protecting the Party. He warned members that issuing statements on their own to the newspapers was a violation of party discipline. He said discipline was essential and he would press hard for it.

The next speaker, Lakshman Jayakody said the party had failed to tell the country why the UNP lost Wayamba. As he saw it, the UNP lacked organizational skills, the absence of Wijeyapala Mendis sent the caste vote to Priyankara Jayaratne, while the upper class in Wayamba preferred S.B Nawinna to Gamini Jayawickrema Perera.

At this stage, Mahinda Rajapakse interrupted, saying it is all history. There is a case against Wayamba and what we are saying could be sub judice. He said much of the responsibility for the negative publicity must be taken by Ministers who went before the media to defend what happened at Wayamba.

He said those Ministers had launched a stinging attack on journalists who in turn had got together against the Government.

Let us take an example. Victor Ivan, editor of the Ravaya won't talk for the UNP. Similarly, Sunanda Deshapriya, the editor of the Yukthiya is a journalist with credibility. Pakkiyasothy Saravanamuttu of the Monitoring Group has special links with the SLFP. But the Ministers attacked all of them indiscriminately.

"We should have taken the UNP and attacked it without hitting at journalists. There are many journalists who worked with us and helped restore democracy. They have a right to critcise when we do wrong. Our responsibility is to listen to them and work with them without attacking them," he said.

Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera who intervened at this stage said Mr. Ivan had no moral right to talk. "I give the Ravaya eight lakhs every month", he disclosed.

Mr. Rajapakse appeared shocked and asked Mr. Samaraweera to which Bank money was credited. The Media Minister then clarified it saying he gave it in the form of advertisements.

Minister Rajapakse then asked whether Mr. Samaraweera wanted Mr. Ivan to do only propaganda work of the PA. Referring to Lake House papers, Mr. Rajapakse said the PA's propaganda machine has turned out to be cheap and unprofessional. Other newspapers would not like to stoop to that level.

"By criticizing and attacking, you have pushed Mr. Ivan further away from us. The other joke is that we go on saying all these papers belong to somebody's uncle and that uncle is doing this and doing that. We do not mind to whom the uncle belongs as long as the newspaper in question reflects a true picture. Then I must say that all these papers belonging to these so-called uncles have worked for us, have put us back in office. I know personally the Chairman of the Wijeya Newspapers and I am sure he does not influence any of his editors. Take, for instance, the editor- in-chief of Lankadeepa, a man from Matara and a highly respected journalist. He tries to give a balanced picture through his newspaper. If we forget his role during the last general election, then we are being ungrateful", Mr. Rajapakse said.

In the same tone, Mr. Rajapakse defended Divaina, too. It gave us a lot of publicity, but it appears that some misconceptions have crept in. What we do today is attack them rather than get them to put our point of view across.

"What is important now is to build a rapport with the newspapers," he said. As Mr. Rajapakse finished his 45-minute defence of the free media, Mr. Samaraweera shot back asking whether he wanted the media portfolio.

An angry Mr. Rajapakse said he did not want anybody's portfolio, but was only trying to salvage the party. He insisted that the SLFP was not a dictatorial party, but a democratic one based on S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike principles.

After the Ministers finished their arguments and counter-arguments on the media, President Kumaratunga arrived for the meeting. She started with Wayamba.

"We should show the world that we stand for democracy. You should not indulge in any kind of election malpractices the April 01 election. I have deployed an independent team to keep an eye on the miscreants. Let us allow the people to express their free will," the President said. She said the PA could not change its lists for the election since the UNP did not support the amendment to the Provincial Councils' Elections Act.

In the circumstances, she said she would appoint several key Ministers to take over as Chief Ministers in provinces where the PA would win.

Bertie Premalal Dissanayake will take over the North Central province while Samaraweera Weerawanni and Athauda Seneviratne will take over the Uva and Sabaragamuwa, she said. The President said she had asked D.M.Jayaratne to be the Chief Minister for the Central Province. But both Ministers Anuruddha Ratwatte and Mahinda Rajapakse said Mr. Jayaratne was not keen on it.

The President said she would then nominate Nandimithra Ekanayake to that position.

Soon after the central committee meeting, the government group met again. The main topic was the elections.

The President told MPs it was important to have a violence-free election, emphasizing she would implement the law to the very letter without any hesitation. "Position will not matter for me. I will take the miscreants to task," she warned.

"Some people wanted to set up a military administration on the pretext of violence. I know who wanted it and I know how to deal with them this time. I will treat all alike irrespective of their position and if I find somebody acting contrary to party discipline and election laws, I will not hesitate to fire them,"she said.

One MP asked what action she would take against UNPers who played around with election laws. The President said the whole world knows the UNP was up to mischief. "I am saddened because some elements are trying to tarnish our image, " she said. While violence is rearing its head, it is necessary that the President's word must be translated into action.

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