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The Political Column

28th March 1999

Call for new political culture

By our Political Correspondent

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Wayamba may have been a fraud and a national disgrace. But it is also pro ducing blessings in a totally unexpected way.

For better or for worse President Chandrika Kumaratunga has during the past few weeks met Opposition UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe thrice. The significance of this is seen when we look at what happened or did not happen during the past four and half years. The President and the Opposition Leader did not have an official summit meeting though many efforts were made to bring them together. The President kept hammering at the Opposition Leader while he often looked at media signs to get a green light for consensus politics instead of confrontational politics.

As all party elections monitoring committee met again on Thursday it was noted that in earlier times all party meetings were generally held at times of international crises.

Later we had all-party conferences in a bid to settle the ethnic conflict, North-East war or the youth fighting in the South. Now we are having all-party talks to give ourselves basic lessons on how to conduct free and fair elections. That too not parliamentary elections but largely parochial provincial elections. It is indeed sad that after some eighty years of universal adult franchise and rich civilization dating back to times when some of the Westerners were still on trees, we in Sri Lanka are learning again how to walk or vote like human beings.

As usual President Kumaratunga was about 45 minutes late for Thursday's meeting.

Punctuality in Sri Lanka is indeed a waste of time and what else can we expect when a proper example is not set at the top. It is more an attitude problem than an action problem. Anyway when the President arrived the main item on the agenda was the proposal to give more powers to the Commissioner of Elections through urgent legislation passed at a special session of Parliament. The new powers would enable the Commissioner to cancel the poll in any booth where he felt there was substantial evidence of rigging or intimidation to an extent that would affect the eventual outcome.

Opposition UNP Leader said that in the aftermath of Wayamba, national attention was now focused on how to conduct free and fair election. In this backdrop he reiterated the UNP's oft repeated calls for the setting up of an Independent Election Commission, Police Commission and Public Service Commission.

The President also was quick to reiterate the Government's position. She said the government also had a vision on a more democratic society and had inner strength and conviction to push ahead with such plans. But the President insisted that independent elections or police commissions and the like must come along with the whole package for devolution of power and constitutional reforms. She said she did not believe in piecemeal or ad hoc changes that would provide only short term benefits.

Mr. Wickremesinghe was ready with his reply. He said the UNP was not tackling the symptoms or proposing short term measures. The independent elections and police commissions as long term measures which the UNP felt could strengthen the foundations of democracy and justice. But in the higher national interest the UNP was ready to put aside its long term proposal and agree on an urgent measure to give more powers to the Commissioner of Elections.

The President appeared to be amused by what she saw as the proclamation of the UNP's high sounding principles. She started quoting from a document she had, citing instances of the UNP's ills and evils in the past.

Mr. Wickremesinghe listened silently and then spoke out. He said that for any misdeeds or injustices of the past the UNP had been defeated by the people in 1994. But almost 5 years later the Kumaratunga Government was still going back to the sins of the past apparently to justify or cover up the broken promises of today.

Looking the President in the face, he told her that the PA was elected not to drag the people back into the bad path but to take them into the future and the challenges of the new millennium.

JVP representative Nanda Gunatileke chipped in at this stage. He said new laws and new commissions would not be necessary if political leaders and candidates set the proper example to the voters, as the JVP was doing. The President and others were seen smiling as the purer than thou stand of the JVP was proclaimed.

When Mr. Wickremesinghe spoke again he ran into conflict with Ministers Batty Weerakoon and Lakshman Kadirgamar. The UNP leader said his party had filed petitions in court, seeking the invalidation of the Wayamba Provincial elections and also a declaration that fundamental rights of the voters had been violated through large scale rigging and intimidation.

In his view the petition on fundamental rights was more significant. If it was upheld by the courts some Ministers could be stripped of their civic rights.

But Mr. Weerakoon challenged this view and he was backed by Mr. Kadirgamar. All three being lawyers they quipped or traded charges on who did what in the past with references being made to who spoke for whose rights during the infamous crack-down on the general strike of July 1980.

Then it was the turn of the generally fiery and radical NSSP leader Wickramabahu Karunaratna. He further explained his view that what was needed was a dissolution of the Wayamba Provincial Council. But as he continued to warn of the consequences of carrying on with an illegal council, the President intervened to say she had read about Mr. Karunaratne's theory in some newspaper and it included a subtle hand for the UNP's chief ministerial candidate Karu Jayasuriya.

The JVP delegate then opened fire again. He said he did not come for the all party talk, to just talk and look at other peoples' faces. The JVP wanted action. It wanted the Wayamba Provincial Council dissolved and more powers given to the Elections Commissioner.

The President and Minister Ratnasiri Wickramanayake insisted that special legislation could not be introduced and passed before the election on April 6. They said it was impractical to do that. Mr. Wickremesinghe said if that were not possible the President should do whatever was possible to assure that people that a free and fair poll would be conducted. She agreed to do that.

Minister Weerakoon then took the argument on another track. He said he was opposed to too much power being given to any one person, like the Elections Commissioner. That was the basis on which the LSSP opposed the Executive Presidential system, because it felt too much power was given to one person. The UNP leader scoffed at Mr. Weerakoon asking why he clung to the government if he felt so strongly against giving so much power to one person. Mr. Wickremesinghe said that was why the UNP was proposing an Independent Elections Commission where more powers would be given not to one person but to many.

JVP leader Tilwin Silva accused the government of saying different things at different times. He said when it suited the government's self interest it introduced bills within 24 hours but now it was talking of waiting for the whole package and the waiting might go on and on.

Minister Wickramanayake asked him what was presented within 24 hours and JVP leader said he was referring to the amendments to the Provincial Council Act - an exercise that ended up in the dust bin.

The next topic on the agenda of the all-party committee was the threat from illegal fire arms. The JVP wanted all illegal firearms seized. But the President fired back saying those who gave those arms to all those in 1988 and 1989 were now demanding that action be taken to seize the arms. Going back to the past again she said Mr. Wickremesinghe was a key minister in the Government that freely handed out automatic weapons and other fire arms. Mr. Wickremesinghe also shot back insisting that the UNP had not handed out T-56 automatic weapons and that the President was as usual blowing up matters.

The next item was the alleged misuse of state property and resources for party benefits during election campaigns. The JVP leader alleged that 10 vehicles from Minister Indika Gunawardene's Ministry was used for PA work.

The President said allegations should not be made without sufficient proof and Mr. Silva offered to provide the registration numbers of the vehicles. The President promised to take up the matter with the Minister and ask him to hold an inquiry. Another allegation was that vehicles from D.M. Jayaratne's Ministry had been distributing fertilizer in Gampola. But Mr. Jayaratne side stepped the matter by asking whether the people were expected to wait without cultivating or eating just because it was election time.

As usual the party's leaders had tea and made lofty proclamation about their desire to usher in a new political culture so that we will never again see another Wayamba. But actions seldom match the words. In most of what they are doing and in a majority of the two main parties there is little if any evidence of a new political culture.

The number of election related incidents has topped 700 and this time the most disturbing feature is an increasing trend towards intra party incidents. According to one monitoring group more than 50 incidents have been reported by PA members against their own party members.

Though politicians are virtually threatening to give their lives for the people and usher in a political culture that is people centered the level of public interest and trust in politicians or the political process is on a serious decline. Thus it is not surprising that newspaper headlines, TV and radio time these days are dominated not by who will become the chief minister of which province but by who will win the race for the prestigious presidency of the very rich and powerful Board of Control for Cricket in Sri Lanka.

Just at the time when the national mania over cricket appears to be on the wane and the bubble of the world champion image has burst, unprecedented attention is focused on whether President Kumaratunga's candidate - Uncle Clifford Ratwatte - or the current President Tilanga Sumathipala will win the election today.

Sources close to Mr. Ratwatte say he has been assured of 84 votes - well over the 65 required to win the Presidency. Clubs and district associations affiliated to the Cricket Board have two votes each and in recent weeks supporters of both candidates are known to have campaigned as fiercely as the politicians did in Wayamba to win the votes.

Almost everywhere from marketplaces and three-wheel taxi stands to city bars and five-star hotels, the main topic of discussion is the Cricket Board election and whether it will be a victory for the President's candidate or the one who is being opposed by the President or who is opposed to the President. Stories of political figures getting involved in the Cricket Board battle were many. Among others named were Anura Bandaranaike and Colombo's Mayor Karu Jayasuriya who as the UNP's chief ministerial candidate for the Western Province has emerged as a charismatic No. 2 in the party.

Some reports said Mr. Jayasuriya would back Mr. Sumathipala and others said he would back the Ratwatte campaign. But at cocktails with journalists on Wednesday the popular Mayor denied he was a player in the battle but only an onlooker or an umpire.

To back his claim he said that a municipal officer who worked under him and had a vote at the Board election had asked him whom to vote for. Mr. Jayasuriya said he had told the officer that sports and politics must not be mixed and he could take a decision on merit.

One factor is clear, the President is backing Clifford Ratwatte's bid. But not too many ministers are as enthusiastic as she while some are known to be giving support from the sidelines to Mr. Sumathipala.

With everyone talking about the Cricket Board battle it was widely expected that the Cabinet also would see the ball swinging this way and that. Ministers were known to be waiting to take it up with the President. But the head umpire did not turn up and there was no cricket match at the Cabinet meeting. Instead with House Leader Ratnasiri Wickramanayake presiding two ministers went fishing in troubled waters.

Former Fisheries Minister Inidika Gunawardena - now in a higher house - clashed with the current Fisheries Minister Mahinda Rajapakse over a fresh water fishing project at Maharagama. The row started when Minister Gunawardena presented a proposal from the Urban Development Authority to launch a fresh water fishing project on a 12-acre site in Maharagama. Minister Rajapakse was furious. He vowed he would not allow any other ministers to poach in his waters.

Mr. Gunawardena was equally furious. He said it had taken him much time and effort to get funds for the project approved by the Treasury and now he had run into another storm in the Cabinet.

Minister Rajapakse appeared to be ready to compromise. He said the tradition was for the Cabinet to take up a proposal and study it for a week or two. On that basis he suggested the ministers could further study the proposal and take it up again in two weeks.

But Mr. Gunawardena was not prepared to allow anyone to rock his fishing boat. He wanted a decision or the go-ahead to be given immediately. Mr. Rajapakse also got tough then. He wanted to know why a minister with Communist ideals of collective development was so keen to give so much land to an individual. He said he wondered what the personal connection was.

This provoked Mr. Gunawardena also to hit back on a somewhat personal basis. He accused Mr. Rajapakse of trespass when the latter built houses without the approval of the Housing Ministry. Mr. Rajapakse said he built houses for poor fishermen and not for friends. He claimed he had to take the initiative and do that because the Housing Ministry had not done it.

Mr. Rajapakse said the hard-pressed fishermen had got some relief from these houses and he too was able to keep afloat because of that. He said no one, not even God, would be able to stop him from building houses for poor fishermen.

As the positions became hardened, Mr. Gunawardena apparently realised he was up against a stone wall and agreed to give two weeks for the Cabinet to study the proposals.

The President arrived at the Cabinet office after the meeting had ended. Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, who represents the Catholic belt of Negombo, raised questions about the military operation and takeover of the areas around the hallowed shrine of Madhu. The minister said the people and the clergy there faced many problems and struggles. Thus he wanted the President to speak to the Bishop of Mannar and discuss matters with him.

The minister phoned the Bishop and the President spoke to the prelate. During the discussion Bishop Rayappu Joseph told the President about transport, security and other problems for the thousands of people living around the shrine. The President assured she would act in these matters and also give orders for electricity to be provided to the shrine area along with safe passage for people travelling from Mannar to Madhu areas.

In the wake of the Madhu operation the President is expected to go to Negombo and respond to a charge that Ranil Wickremesinghe made against her. Speaking at a rally in Mahabage on Monday Mr. Wickremesinghe described the President as a Lady Pilate who washed her hands of the election date controversy and passed the blame to the Commissioner of Elections though some reports suggested that the original All Fools Day for the poll was chosen largely because it was a nakath day for her.

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