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The Political Column

20th June 1999

Southern heavyweights fight for posts

By our Political Correspondent

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The recent southern elections showed new and significant trends in the emerging political scenario in Sri Lanka.

The people have once again asserted their independence by making a choice of their own. Despite all the big talk and big promises of both major parties, the PA and the UNP, and also the newly emerging JVP. While it was another disappointment and setback for the UNP, the ruling PA also cannot be very happy about the outcome with a hung administration.

The PA's electoral performances in the South has to be viewed in the context of several macro-socio-economic issues that have already registered a negative effect to the growth of the PA vote as rightly canvassed by the UNP. But contrary to theoretical assumptions and calculations made by the opposition, the PA still emerged victorious in all the three districts. This again at a time the JVP was breaking in with a percentage of over 12% or nearly 126,000 votes from the traditional centre left forces. A close analysis of the votes amongst the three parties shows the current strength of the individual parties.

The most significant factor in the vote is that the UNP vote has not made any worthwhile increase even in line with the 1997 local council elections and the party's percentage has dropped to mere 39% - a potentially dangerous decline from the recently established national UNP average of 43% as recorded in the five PC elections in April this year.

The setback came despite a campaign personally handled by the party hierarchy with a chosen band of MPs.

The UNP campaign did not get off to a smooth start with lots of hullabaloo in the selection of the chief ministerial candidate and some important candidates in the Matara district. This saw former chief minister M.S. Amarasiri and frontliners like Wijewardena crossing over to the PA, bringing the weak side of the leadership of the UNP into focus. Though the UNP had a professionally guided campaign in the Western PC elections recently, in the South once again a largely mediocre campaign was seen. Little effort was made to consolidate the more urban electorates and strengthen the areas where the JVP was making heavy inroads as much as 20% of the total votes cast particularly in the Hambantota district.

The PA still won the Hambantota district and all electorates in it while the UNP only won three electorates out of 21 in the province. It is this dismal performance that has now to be viewed by the UNP at a time when two major national elections are probably within close proximity.

The dilemma UNP now faces is whether it could attract mass appeal to win these elections in the short term or re-group and re-emerge to face another day in the future. It is unfortunate that the UNP's period in the opposition during the past five years has not being productive in making headway towards regaining its strength and forging ahead, particularly at a time of numerous economic hardships to all sections of society.

Not only the UNP, but also the Sri Lanka Freedom Party is considering a shake-up in the party hierarchy before facing the next presidential election probably late this year or early next year.

President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga on Monday summoned a meeting of several senior ministers and discussed the proposed shake-up in detail. Ministers Anuruddha Ratwatte, Mangala Samaraweera, Richard Pathirana, D.M. Jayaratne and S.B. Dissanayake were among those present.

After a lengthy discussion on party reorganisation, the ministers and the President switched the topic to the results of the southern elections.

As they were talking, an aide whispered to the President that Chief Minister-designate Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena had come to Temple Trees to meet her. She invited him to join the discussions mainly on how many portfolios, members from each district should get. Minister Richard Pathirana reportedly made a strong claim for Galle members to get two ministerial posts and the post of vice chairman.

The Matara campaign leader Mangala Samaraweera intervened to say he was opposed to any portfolio being given to Danny Hiththetiya, an SLFP candidate from the Hambantota district. He claimed Mr. Hiththetiya on several occasions had criticised the President. But he said someone from Hambantota should get a portfolio and it could be Priyanka Dheerasinghe. President Kumaratunga at this stage said Minister Mahinda Rajapakse should be consulted on this.

Minister Samaraweera also proposed that lawyer Sharmal Rajapakse be appointed as chairman (Speaker) of the newly elected council.

This column learns that someone close to the hierarchy quickly informed Minister Mahinda Rajapakse of who said what at the Temple Trees discussion. He called an official at Temple Trees and questioned how portfolios in the south had been decided upon without consulting him though he was the leader of the Hambantota district. Mr. Rajapakse told the official to inform the President of his position. When the President was told about it, she reportedly said they could inform Mr. Rajapakse that it was only a discussion and no finality had been reached on the portfolios.

When Parliament met on Tuesday, the southern Chief Minister designate Mr. Abeywardena was also seen in the corridors. Mr. Abeywardena had fixed an appointment with Minister Rajapakse to have lunch at the guest canteen. But when Mr. Rajapakse arrived and looked for Mr. Abeywardena, he was clearly a little dismayed to learn that he was in the chambers with Minister Samaraweera. Minister Rajapakse went to Minister Mangala Samaraweera's chambers and asked Mr. Abeywardena whether he was getting permission from Minister Samaraweera to meet him.

Deputy Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and a journalist were also in Mr. Samaraweera's chamber at that time. The journalist asked Mr. Rajapakse for an interview but the minister said that he had been subjected to severe criticism and sometimes attacks from people within the party, and the journalists after interviewing him are also trying to smash him up.

Minister Samaraweera said it was indiscreet to say the least for Mr. Minister Rajapakse to make such comments, especially in the presence of journalists. But things got a little better and Mr. Rajapakse eventually had lunch with both Minister Samaraweera and Mr. Abeywardena.

At the weekly meeting of the ministers on Wednesday, D.M. Jayaratne referred to complaints made by several ministers that the President's decisions were largely influenced by one minister.

The President denied this allegation as nonsense. "There is no basis to this. I know you are referring to Mangala Samaraweera. But he has been given a separate ministry to work out his plans," she said.

The President also said she did not have time to listen to tales carried by others. "I have a lot more responsibilities in my hands and better things to do. It is not true if somebody says that only Minister Samaraweera is allowed to see me at any time. Are not others coming to meet me regularly?" she asked.

Minister Samaraweera said he had not had a long one-to-one meeting with the President for the past six months. The President said that when the PA came to office in 1994, there was much unity among ministers and members and she felt that unity needed to be protected and fostered.

Minister Rajapakse who was silent then spoke and told the President there were rumours about a Cabinet re-shuffle shortly.

Responding, President Kumaratunga said most of those reports were what she saw as conspiracies by insiders in connivance with some journalists. Minister Rajapakse agreeing said insiders should be careful when they leaked out stories.

He said the reshuffle story gained ground only after the President met Deputy Minister Mahinda Wijesekera with some 200 fish businessmen. The President quipped that if Mr. Rajapakse was not invited for a meeting, it became a major story in some newspapers.

She said stories in the media about a reshuffle in the party and Cabinet were largely the figments of journalistic imagination.

She reportedly said there would be no major reshuffle but the lingering question was how major is major.

After the ministers met, the President invited district leaders from the South and the ministers for a special meeting to finalize matters pertaining to the Southern Provincial Council.

Minister Rajapakse at this stage referred to some newspaper reports which indicated that such matters had already been finalized. He said some were accusing him of leaking stories to the media but the latest story showed how stories were leaked when he was not present.

When the President asked Mr. Rajapakse what he wanted for the Hambantota district, the reply was at least one portfolio. Mr. Samaraweera said that he would oppose the appointment of Danny Hiththetiya. Minister Rajapakse then suggested that he be given the chairmanship with M. K. Ranjith (Chandi Malli) getting a portfolio.

Minister Rajapakse said that there was a talk that Rajapakses were always nominated from Hambantota and to avoid that situation, I have proposed a good farmer's son Ranjith.

The President who obviously knew the background asked whether Mr. Rajapakse's farmer's son had a criminal background and the minister admitted he had been accused in a double murder case. Mr. Rajapakse suggested that that charge was linked to politics and said the any decision could be reviewed if Mr. Ranjith was found guilty. The President then agreed.

Apparently concerned about an erosion of the Muslim votes for the upcoming presidential or parliamentary elections, the president then spoke out strongly on the long-standing and well-known dispute between Minister A. H. M. Fowzie and SLMC leader and Minister M.H.M. Ashraff.

The President was reported to have come down hard on Mr. Fowzie, saying he was on the warpath while Mr. Ashraff was relatively calm. She proposed a ministerial committee comprising Anuruddha Ratwatte, D.M. Jayaratne and Mahinda Rajapakse to look into the disputes between the two Muslim ministers.

In the meantime, programmes are being planned to felicitate the ailing Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike on her completion of 40 years in active politics, amidst reports that she would retire from both the premiership and the party presidency. But sources close to Ms. Bandaranaike say she is not ready to retire from either post and this might create problems for President Kumaratunga in her plans especially to reorganize the party and put it in top gear for upcoming elections.

Ms. Bandaranaike, is also said to be disturbed over the non-inclusion of her private secretary Keerthi Mawella in the cabinet of the southern provincial council. Mr. Mawella had topped the PA list in the Galle district .

Ms. Bandaranaike's grouse is that Anura de Zoysa has been appointed as PA organiser in Galle while ignoring Mr. Mawella. She probably remembers that it was Anura de Zoysa's father, the famous lawyer A. C. (Bunty) de Zoysa who prosecuted her before the Special Presidential Commission which eventually led to the stripping of her civic rights.

In another development on Monday night, the President hosted a dinner for ministers and PA MPs. All the ministers except Richard Pathirana and S.B. Dissanayake were present at the Janadhipathi Mandiraya dinner.

As a band played several ministers, including Lakshman Jayakody started singing old Sinhala hits and ended up with baila like with the popular 'Signore'.

The President 'took the opportunity to meet family members of ministers and MPs and the dinner went on till midnight.

Three MPs from the Hambantota district - Nirupama Rajapakse, Chamal Rajapake and Mahinda Amaraweera - had a long chat with the President. They told her they were opposed to any move to appoint CP member from Hambantota Priyanka Dheeraratne as a minister for the south.

Nirupama Rajapakse proposed that her brother Sharmal Rajapakse be given a portfolio.

President Kumaratunga replied, saying it would not be possible to appoint Rajapakses for so many posts in the south.

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