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The Political Column

4th July 1999

Mahinda, Mangala in Cabinet maul

By our Political Correspondent

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After a long-drawn battle with the government, the doctors on Wednesday night called off their crippling strike and struck a deal with President Kumaratunga at crucial talks on Friday.

The 'high-level talks' between the President and the GMOA came after the ministers on Wednesday had extensive discussions on the worst health sector crisis in recent years. President Kumaratunga who took a strong stand on the issue finally agreed to talk to the doctors after the Cabinet made a critical assessment of the situation.

Soon after the President's decision was conveyed to the GMOA, the doctors met in emergency session to decide how to respond. There was a difference of opinion with some saying they should continue the strike till the demands were granted and others calling for a withdrawal of the essential services order.

The doctors also consulted leaders of about 25 other trade unions, which had on Tuesday issued an ultimatum to the government, saying they would launch a general strike if the President did not agree to at least meet the GMOA. This brought frightful memories of what happened in the penultimate year of the Sirimavo Bandaranaike government when a railway strike escalated into a general strike and brought a once powerful government to its knees.

At Friday's talks with the GMOA, the President said she would seriously look into their basic demand for more central control over health services without damaging the principles of devolution of power as given in the 13th amendment to the constitution.

Some ministers told this column that at a time when the government was committed to devolving more power to the provinces, the GMOA's demand would require not only a constitutional amendment but would also be a step backward in terms of a political solution to the ethnic conflict.

At the ministers' meeting President Kumaratunga also cited a report by the World Health Organization, which called for more devolution of power to the provinces in the health sector especially. She mentioned Germany and other countries where power had been devolved even to the hospital level to run its own affairs. In the circumstances, she questioned the validity of concentrating more power in the centre but said she was ready to meet GMOA officials to sort out the dispute.

Health Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva also came under heavy pressure from various quarters to find a solution to the crisis.

The backdrop to the crisis lies in two circulars issued in 1989 and in 1993 by the then UNP regime, bringing recruitment, appointments and transfers of doctors under the centre notwithstanding the 13th Amendment. Most people were unaware of this until the controversially-elected North Western province chief minister S. B. Nawinna ran into a problem with GMOA leaders in the province and went to the Supreme Court for a ruling on where the line was drawn. Presuming the court would rule in favour of the chief minister, the doctors launched the strike.

One of its apparent fears was that if health was totally devolved to the provinces, the GMOA itself would lose its domineering monopoly status.

One minister told this column the GMOA should have negotiated with the President on this issue without resorting to strike action. He said the government could have averted the crisis, if the President persuaded Mr. Nawinna to withdraw the case.

If the Supreme Court rules in favour of the chief minister, the government would have to amend the Constitution to meet the doctors' demand. Such an amendment would mean getting support from the UNP for a two-thirds majority. The bigger questions would be the position of minority parties, which are seeking more devolution as a solution to the ethnic conflict.

In this scenario, Attorney-General Sarath Silva has come up with a compromise solution. The AG who met a GMOA delegation has proposed that the requirements and standards of the health services could be linked to the provincial councils while maintaining a national policy on health services.

He has also proposed that a list relating to procedures of recruiting doctors, seniority, and transfers of doctors within or outside the province could be prepared and brought as an Act of Parliament.

Minister G. L. Peiris also held similar views on the crisis. He has told the ministers a solution was possible within the framework of the 13th Amendment without taking a step backward in the devolution process.

Minister Peiris' initiative came after officials of the Organization of Professional Associations appealed to him to mediate in the matter. As a sequel, he met GMOA officials and kept in touch with two other ministers - Jeyaraj Fernandopulle and S. B. Dissanayake who also were trying to mediate. But the President is reported to have told the ministers to stop negotiating personally and work out a joint approach by the government.

The President's tough stand appears to be linked to her fear that the UNP is using the doctors' strike to get political mileage. Addressing the government group, she said the UNP was trying to take advantage from both sides. On the one had it was accusing the government of failing to solve the crisis and forcing the people to suffer more. But if the government agreed to GMOA demands and took away some powers from the provinces, the UNP would go to the minorities and say the government had taken away what the UNP had given them.

At the weekly meeting of ministers, Minister Mahinda Rajapakse called for the withdrawal of the essential services order, while another minister asked as to why she did not allow the ministers to negotiate with the GMOA.

The President, with a wink, said it was Nimal Siripala de Silva who did not want any other ministers to interfere in the matter.

During the discussion, Minister S. B. Dissanayake reportedly called the GMOA officials on his mobilephone. The conversation in Sinhala included a remark that the health minister was under fire in cabinet. At that stage, Minister Kingsley Wickremaratne walked in, saying he had come from a wedding where several guests had told him that the tide was now turning in favour of the doctors.

Most ministers urged the President to meet the GMOA but she said they might put forward various conditions. Minister A.H. M. Fowzie said he would ask the doctors to come without further conditions and the President finally agreed. The President then decided to meet the GMOA at noon on Friday.

The GMOA officials also met UNP opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe who had remarked in parliament that he felt the President's baby-sitter was responsible for the crisis.

With the doctors' crisis dominating the national scene, another problem for the President was the appointment of board of ministers for the southern provincial council. At a meeting of the SLFP central committee last week, President Kumaratunga said the UNP and the JVP had warned that if the PA nominated M. K. Ranjith alias Chandi Malli from Hambantota to be the chairman of the council, they would defeat him by a majority vote. The PA does not have an absolute majority in the council, thus the UNP and the JVP could together defeat the ruling party.

The President said she felt this was not the time to provoke such a crisis in the council. She thus proposed that Mr. Ranjith be appointed as a minister to represent the Hambantota district with H.G. Sirisena also from Matara as chairman and Danny Hiththatiya of the Communist Party being appointed as a minister to represent Matara. One minister was clearly unhappy about this arrangement. An angry Mangala Samaraweera asked again how they could appoint Mr. Hiththatiya who had allegedly abused the President and the Southern Development Authority.

Mr. Samaraweera argued that Mr. Sirisena must get a portfolio instead of the nominal post as chairman of the council.

He said the Matara vote bank for the PA had increased, while it was the reverse in Hambantota. This brought an angry Mahinda Rajapakse to his feet, claiming that Mr. Samaraweera's devaluation of Hambantota was a reference to him. In the ensuing verbal barrage, they exchanged charges on various matters. Mr. Samaraweera asked Mr. Rajapakse whether Sirisena was a boy. But the voice from Hambantota said he was not sure about it.

The other ministers listened in stunned silence as Mr. Samaraweera and Mr. Rajapakse continued their war of words. The battle hit the media too. Mr. Samaraweera said Mr. Rajapakse was talking big apparently because he knew he had journalists behind him. Mr. Rajapakse hit back saying Mr. Samaraweera appeared to know only journalists of the Whisky class while he knew many who were more humble but more professional in their approach.

The President then called a truce and asked for a third party view from Mahinda Wijesekera, a rising figure who was recently appointed to the central committee. Mr. Wijesekera, known to have differences with Mr. Rajapakse, threw his weight behind Mr. Samaraweera. He said he did not personally prefer Mr. Hiththatiya, but he believed a CP member should be given the post.

Finally the President decided that Mr. Hiththatiya could get the post if he apologised for his attacks on her and the SDA. She wrote a letter to him outlining four charges, but Mr. Hiththatiya is reported to be insisting he would stand by what he said in TV interviews.

At the Central Committee meeting, the President also announced contingency plans for upcoming national elections. She told ministers and MPs they should not go abroad this year without her approval but should go to their respective areas and prepare for the polls. A committee comprising ten ministers, two chief ministers and two deputy ministers has been appointed to reorganise the party at grassroots level in preparation for the polls.

Meanwhile the disputes between Ministers A.H.M. Fowzie and M.H.M. Ashraff are continuing despite personal efforts by the President to heal the rift. The President had appointed a ministerial committee to work out an accommodation between the two rival ministers after pointing out that the PA had fared badly in the Muslim majority Colombo Central electorate, perhaps because of the clash between the two Muslim ministers.

But the two ministers do not appear to be in a compromising mood, not even on the birthday of the Holy Prophet Muhammad.

This year, the Cultural and Religious Affairs Ministry in consultation with Minister Fowzie organized the day's main state ceremony at the Navarangahala. But observers say it was a relative flop with the small crowd not even filling the 500 seats in the hall, in contrast to thousands who came for official celebrations in previous years.

Finally, the hall was filled by schoolchildren who had come there to receive prizes.

Minister Ashraff, in his speech made veiled references to the organizational lapses and other matters involving his rival. But Mr. Fowzie was not there. He came late, saying he was delayed at the opening of a mosque.

Most observers believe Mr. Ashraff's eastern vote base is still largely intact but it is the Muslim vote in Colombo that the PA is losing to the UNP mainly because of fights within.

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