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The Political Column

28th February 1999

CBK shines at poll talks

By our Political Correspondent

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In a valiant effort to pull herself and the PA out of the Wayamba mudhole, Presi dent Kumaratunga took the initiative for a landmark all-party conference on Thursday to discuss measures and procedures to prevent a repeat of Wayamba when five other provinces go to the poll on April 1.

Most independent monitors and others have accused PA supporters of indulging in large-scale rigging and violence at Wayamba. Insiders say the widely awaited all-party talks on Thursday were dominated by more charges and counter charges erupting from the Wayamba fraud.

The President also put the UNP on the offensive when she repeated a series of allegations against it in the letter of invitation sent to party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe.

She also said she was aware that allegations of irregularities and malpractices in the recent Wayamba elections had been levelled against some PA members. By saying this, the President was obviously trying to dissociate herself from the allegations.

Some analysts said the President's attempt to wash her hands of responsibility for the Wayamba violence, lacked credibility. So was her effort to put the blame on the opposition.

The invitation extended to the leader of the opposition looked more like an indictment of the 17-year UNP regime.

In her letter, the President said she had to take great pains to ensure the maintenance of law and order after 1994 parliamentary and presidential elections. These were under circumstances where over 3,000 people whose houses were set on fire by the UNP organisations after 1977 UNP victory together with over 100,000 people who were sacked from their jobs after a one-day legal strike of trade unions in 1980 as well as parents of around 50,000 children killed during the UNP government were requesting for permission from this government to take revenge for their sufferings from those who perpetrated those acts.

She said it was with immense difficulty that the PA brought under control all these forces in a country where state-terror had sufficiently created a culture of political violence. The President also said her action gave protection to every UNPer and their leaders including those known to be responsible for violence.

The President by all these allegations had put the UNP in the dock expecting an explanation from the party leadership. At the same time, she had said that her government would do all that was required to ensure a free and fair election on April 1.

The news of the President's letter was first given to the media by Mr. Wickremesinghe at the birthday party of parliamentarian Ravi Karunanayake on February 19.

Mr. Wickremesinghe who arrived at the party around 9 o'clock first spoke to friends and then went to some journalists.

Sporting a smile, he said the President had invited him to discuss how they should hold elections. In the same vein, he said this was the first time that the government was asking the opposition how to conduct elections. He said he would participate and a reply was being drafted, telling her basically to implement what was in a UNP resolution tabled in parliament.

The UNP has proposed that the government introduces immediate legislation for the amendment of Chapter XIV of the Constitution and any other related provision of the Constitution or other Law to increase and strengthen the authority and power of the Commissioner of Elections for the following purposes:

* the supervision, direction and control of all elections which shall be free, equal and by secret ballot shall be vested in the Commissioner;

* to authorise and enable the commissioner of elections to give directions to the Police Department and its officers during the period starting with the proclamation for an election and ending with the declaration of the result thereof;

* to make adequate provision for the disciplinary control of the members of the police force and public officers, performing duties in connections with an election including the conduct of relevant inquiries;

* requiring every elector to identify himself at a polling station by production of his National Identity Card or other specified form of identity;

* to make adequate provisions for the -

a) Issuing of instructions to public officers, police officers and members of armed forces relevant to the performance of their duties to ensure a free and fair election; and

b. Disciplinary control of all such personnel to ensure adherence to such instructions;

* to make adequate provision for the manner of utilisation of state property to ensure a free and fair election.

The UNP has also proposed that legislation be introduced to amend Article 105 (2) of the Constitution to prohibit the making of emergency regulations under the Public Security Ordinance or similar regulations in respect of the conduct of elections.

Pending the establishment of a permanent independent election commission, the UNP has proposed legislation to amend Article 103 (1) of the Constitution to provide that the commissioner of elections be appointed by the President with the concurrence of the prime minister and the leader of the opposition in parliament.

Some UNPers feel, the party leader should not have accepted the President's invitation for the all-party talks. They said the UNP appeared to have gone back on its position that the people had lost faith in the government and had now given the President a chance to drag the PA out of the Wayamba muddle. They feel the party had again played into the hands of the government.

But others argue that as a responsible opposition party, the UNP needs to cooperate in restoring democracy.

The UNP has also pointed out that though the President is blaming the UNP for election malpractices, she had not acted on the election commissioner's report after the 1997 local government elections.

The commissioner had proposed that he be given police powers during polls campaigns to maintain law and order in all areas and matters relating to elections as in India. The commissioner had also proposed that he be empowered to cancel the poll in any booth where there was substantial evidence of rigging or violence to an extent that would affect the voting pattern.

In India, the election commissioner has often exercised such powers to cancel polls in certain booths and order a re-poll later. Such actions are known to be a deterrent in preventing candidates or their supporters from indulging in lawlessness.

Mr. Wickremesinghe's reply to President Kumaratunga was also equally sharp as the President's letter. He dismissed her charges as a diatribe and referred to the PA's own malpractices and broken promises.

It was after exchanging hard-hitting letters that the President met Mr. Wickremesinghe and other party leaders on Thursday.

Most leaders felt the President had carried the day.

After an introductory speech by the President, the leaders of all parties spoke. The theme and thrust was the prevention of another Wayamba.

They also stressed the need for state TV, radio and media to give fair and equal coverage to all-parties during election campaigns. No party was given specific TV or radio time during the Wayamba campaign, but opposition parties say the PA got full coverage for the campaign though it was projected as official development work.

The role of the police was also taken up. The UNP called for steps to ensure the neutrality of the police but the President hit back by saying the corruption of the police had gone on for years and today they did various things to satisfy politicians.

She said it was not so much the top officers but some OICs who were responsible for the breakdown of proper policing.

UNP front-liner A.C.S. Hameed chipped in at this stage by quipping that if he could form a party of OICs, he could become the president.

Mr. Wickremesinghe stressed the need to give more powers to the elections commissioner as outlined in the UNP resolution, but the President did not respond favourably.

The UNP leader suggested that the proposal be taken up by the cabinet this week and assured the UNP support to pass the legislation. But the President said she could consider such measures on the long-term.

Mr. Wickremesinghe said: "We are not asking for anything more, but what is mentioned in the election manifesto of the PA."

When Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake proposed that a monitoring committee comprising representatives from all parties be formed to ensure a free and fair election, the JVP protested. The party representatives said they were demanding a dissolution of the new Wayamba Council but the President said it was not legally possible.

LSSP leader and Minister Batty Weerakoon accused the private media of blowing up the Wayamba controversy and called for restrictions. He made this proposal when complaints were made about the role of the state media.

The President then quipped "here is some one who has clout over all the newspapers." Many thought it was reference to Mr. Wickremesinghe, and the UNP leader turned to Colombo Mayor Karu Jayasuriya and asked whether the reference was to him. who was also present that she must be talking about him.

Most of the participants opposed the proposal made by Mr. Weerakoon that more controls should be introduced on the independent media.

SLFP General Secretary Dharmasiri Senanayake said the party should support any proposal to ensure fair elections. He said there were black sheep in every party but he hoped the President take more such initiatives and write more letters to the leaders of other parties.

"But without scolding us," quipped Mr. Hameed, apparently referring to the harsh tone of her letter to Mr. Wickremesinghe.

Mr. Hameed also proposed the appointment of an election complaints committee comprising three retired judges.

At one stage President Kumaratunga and UNP General Secretary exchanged charges which led to a near flash point. The President said she would never stoop to the level as implied in statements made by Mr. Atukorale. But he insisted he was not taking back any thing and he was standing by the allegation against officers of the Presidential Security Division. As the verbal fire increased, Mr. Wickremesinghe intervened to defuse the situation.

Thereafter, Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake's proposal to set up an inter-party monitoring committee was accepted unanimously.

Except for a few eruptions here and there, the meeting was cordial and the President assured that she would not allow any politician to use the police to win elections.

She was impressive, fair and listened to everybody, but was not prepared to let everything that was said go unchallenged. She was quick to intervene and put the government's point of view and her own point of view and position in the correct perspective.

At these discussions, the notable absentees were Ministers D.M. Jayaratne, Anuruddha Ratwatte and Mangala Samaraweera who had apparently been sidelined by the President.

The UNP's whole intention of cornering President Kumaratunga has now been overcome by the President and there was dissension in the party over the failure of the party hierarchy to consult the parliamentary group and the working committee before attending the talks with the President.

While the party leader had a lengthy discussion on the elections, UNP's election strategists met two experts from the British Conservative Party to plan their strategy for the forthcoming provincial elections. They were later joined by UNP Chairman Karu Jayasuriya who discussed matters relating to the latest talks with the President and the UNP's strategy.

Among others who were present at this meeting were Karunasena Kodituwakku, Imtiaz Bakeer Markar, Rohitha Bogollagama, Charitha Ratwatte and Daya Pelpola and Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena.

In another development an opposition delegation led by Mr. Wickremesinghe met Speaker K.B. Ratnayake to protest against the appointment of Dhammika Kitulgoda as secretary general of parliament.

The opposition parties said Mr. Kitulgoda's appointment, overlooking the deputy secretary general was a violation of parliamentary tradition. They said even the speaker had not been consulted.

But Mr. Ratnayake said the President had spoken to him about the matter some weeks ago. However, there had been no further communication till Mr. Kitulgoda was appointed.

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