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The Political Column

11th July 1999

Presidential poll likely first

By our Political Correspondent

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The dawn of the year 2000 for Sri Lanka will not only be the beginning of a new millennium, but also the beginning of an important election year.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga has indicated that elections are round the corner, but she is yet to decide whether it would be a presidential or parliamentary election first.

The recent provincial elections gave an idea of the mood of the Sri Lankan voters, putting both the PA and the UNP in a difficult position. The six provinces which went to the polls in the past six months did not give a clear majority to either of the major party though the PA now controls all the councils.

In actual terms, the number of seats held by the ruling party is less than the total number of seats secured by the combined oppositions. In this backdrop, it would be difficult to predict what election the President would choose. However, many insiders and observers believe Ms. Kumaratunga would go for an early presidential election, knowing that the longer she delays the less would be the popularity of the PA.

Many observers also believe that neither of the major candidates at the presidential election would secure the fifty percent plus one vote as constitutionally required for an outright victory. Thus there might be a second count on the basis of preferential votes. But even that might not produce a winner in terms of the requirement.

President Kumaratunga's move last Sunday to appoint 16 new deputy ministers before she left for Nepal was another indication that she was trying to strengthen her hand and exploit all the resources available for the next presidential hustings. The total number of ministers and deputy ministers now exceeds 70 far beyond the restricted number of 20 as pledged in the PA manifesto at a time when the UNP had scores of cabinet ministers, deputy ministers, project ministers and district ministers and what not. Power indeed corrupts and what the PA then hated and attacked, it has now done.

Another surprising factor in the President's move to appoint 16 new deputy ministers is that the other constituent parties of the PA had not got even one. In some instances she has appointed more than one deputy minister for the same subject, making the whole exercise a mockery. How much would this cost the people was the question.

While the President was obviously preparing for national elections, the main opposition UNP was also in a similar mood. Unlike the PA, the UNP prefers a parliamentary election first. That is why the UNP is now trying to persuade smaller parties to bring pressure on the government to hold parliamentary elections first.

UNP leaders are telling minority parties that if President Kumaratunga secures a second term it would reduce the bargaining power of the minority parties and also help her to get a clear majority in parliament which again would mean less influence for the minority parties.

The Lanka Samasamaja Party (LSSP) and the Communist Party have moved in this direction and are pushing President Kumaratunga to have a parliamentary election first. They may join the JVP in the proposed protest rally on Thursday to bring pressure on Ms. Kumaratunga to abolish the presidency. LSSP leader and Minister Batty Weerakoon is also reported to be considering a move to resign his portfolio and to present a private member's bill in Parliament, demanding the abolition of the executive presidency though four full years have passed since the President promised to abolish it by July 15, 1995.

The UNP too will join the bandwagon by organising a protest march to force the President to fulfill her main pledge. UNP MPs are likely to march towards the President's official residence in protest, but how serious they are in calling for the abolition of the executive presidency is another matter.

In this scenario the UNP is reported to have sent word to the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress that the SLMC's bargaining power would obviously be reduced if the President decides on a presidential election first. The message has been given through SLMC General Secretary Rauf Hakeem but other seniors in the party have warned against falling into any UNP trap. They have also said the President has demonstrated her sincerity and addressed minority grievances to a large extent and it is in the best interest of the Muslims that the SLMC supports the President at this election. These seniors feel that if the SLMC tries to secure its bargaining power by holding the government to ransom it might create suspicion among the majority Sinhalese who now have a fairly good relationship with the Muslims. They also feel they could get a better deal from President Kumaratunga than any other leader.

Though apparently failing to sell its line to the SLMC as a whole, the UNP. however, won a small consolation prize, when SLMC national organiser M. (Myown) Mustapha joined the UNP. His pet name in the middle comes from a computer firm he owned.

Mr. Mustapha made several requests to the UNP leadership and most are reported to have been agreed upon.

The UNP it is said, has promised to accommodate an Eastern Province Muslim in the National list while agreeing to field only two Sinhala candidates in the Digamadulla district. At present the UNP has three MPs from Digamadulla, including former minister P. Dayaratne. He had first opposed it but later agreed.

Sensing the Mustapha crossover, the SLMC had earlier made some counter moves, including the upgrading of two Pradeshiya Sabhas in the area to the level of urban councils and the creation of two more AGA divisions in the area.

However, "Myown" Mustapha is likely to make a dent in the Ashraff domain in the east.

Besides this, a section of the UNP is working hard to narrow the differences between UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and former general secretary Sirisena Cooray. Though the UNP officially boycotted the Premadasa commemoration ceremony organised by Mr. Cooray and his associates, word has been sent to Mr. Cooray that the differences could be ironed out if he refrained from criticising or embarrassing the party leadership.

The message to Mr. Cooray was sent through a Colombo MMC, who insisted that the organisers of the Premadasa commemoration ceremony should not allow the controversial monk Ven. Elle Gunawansa Thera to speak.

The monk had raised a storm when he attacked Mr. Wickremesinghe at a controversial meeting organised by another dissident Wijeyapala Mendis in Negombo recently.

However, a statement issued by Mr. Cooray on Tuesday has further widened rather than narrowed the gap. Mr. Cooray said he had agreed to postpone a news conference which he had scheduled for that day to announce what he described as a new development plan. He said he had done so in deference to a request made by the UNP leadership but he insisted that his aim was to unite and not to divide The party as the leadership thought.

The UNP's push for an early parliamentary election was further confirmed with the latest decision to shift party chairman Karu Jayasuriya to the Gampaha district. The party line is that they want Mr. Jayasuriya to strengthen the UNP's chances in the Gampaha district. But some insiders say that it was to clear the way for Mr. Wickremesinghe in the Colombo district. Mr. Jayasuriya though he accepted the shift without a murmur, sources close to Mr.Jayasuriya believe he has reservations on this move.

Mr. Jayasuriya polled a record 250,000 preference votes in the recent elections. Besides losing that huge voter base, there are also questions as to what would be the position of Anura Bandaranaike who is now considered the UNP's Gampaha district leader.

With the latest shift of candidates on the UNP's political chess board one school of thought in the UNP expresses the view that it would be prudent for the party to field an alternative candidate to face the presidential election. This is based on the thinking that the government would benefit from a block vote in the north and the east where a free and fair election cannot be expected.

In the circumstances, they think that Mr. Wickremesinghe should not risk himself by coming forward to contest the presidential election. The compromise candidate might be Mr. Jayasuriya. But this plan is being refuted by others in the party who say it is being floated to discredit Mr. Wickremesinghe.

UNP leaders are also confident that the minorities would largely vote with them. This is based on the result of the recent provincial elections where minority support went clearly to the UNP.

This included a large percentage of the Muslim vote outside the north and east. In this situation, UNP strategists feel they could win the minority vote without depending on the SLMC or the CWC.

This was explained at a UNP meeting in Matara recently. President Kumaratunga also appears to be having similar views that she could win the minority vote without giving more to the main minority parties like the SLMC or the CWC. That may be why she did not appoint any SLMC member as one of her new deputy ministers.

But SLMC strategists still feel their best bet is President Kumaratunga and things are likely to stay that way. The SLMC also feels having a presidential election before parliamentary election would be personally beneficial to it. Party strategists feel that if a parliamentary election is held first, the SLMC might lose a few seats to the UNP. But that would not happen if a Presidential election is held first and Ms. Kumaratunga wins it.

In the UNP, internal squabbles are erupting again. One is a hard-hitting battle between Sajith Premadasa and Dr. Rajitha Senaratne. At a group meeting, Dr. Senaratne and Hambantota member Mervyn Silva came out with a scathing attack on Mr. Premadasa, accusing him of having got close to Minister Mangala Samaraweera who had earlier accused the Premadasa family of being involved in all sorts of frauds and scandals. What provoked Dr. Senaratne was Sajith Premadasa's reference to filthy politics. The PA also has often that charge at Dr. Senaratne, accusing him of using filthy language.

Sajith Premadasa took this matter up with party leader Mr. Wickremesinghe when he met him on Tuesday to extend his wedding invitation. Mr. Premadasa said there was a severe attack on them at a joint meeting of the parliamentary group and the working committee.

Mr. Premadasa said character assassination was not his politics and he felt it must be kept out of politics. He was perhaps echoing the famous last words of his father regarding character assassination.

The young Mr. Premadasa said he was wondering whether the alleged character assassination by Dr. Senaratne was being done on his own or on contract for some other person.

Mr. Premadasa praised Mr. Wickremesinghe's vision for the next millennium, but asked as to how he would forge ahead with people of the calibre of Rajitha Senaratne and Mervyn Silva.

"I know that you are a gentleman politician. If you got people of this nature on your stage your position will be at stake," Mr. Premadasa told Mr. Wickremesinghe.

He said Dr. Senaratne and Mr. Silva had attacked his father also, even describing him as a mad man. "These very people are now trying to destroy me," he charged..

In the meantime, nearly 20 MPs who met at the lobby in parliament have decided to boycott Mr. Premadasa's wedding on July 23 because they feel humiliated over the way the invitations were given. The invitations had been left at the parliament reception lobby for the MPs to collect them.

Leading the attack again was Mervyn Silva who said members should not be treated like dogs.

But now the immediate problem at hand for UNP leader Mr. Wickremesinghe is the possible cross-over of Dr. Sarath Amunugama to the SLFP.

It is reported that Dr Amunugama a former civil servant and media chief had a meeting with the President and was offered a parliamentary seat and a cabinet portfolio thereafter.

On hearing this the UNP had made moves to prevent Dr. Amunugama's crossover, two Wickremesinghe confidants Milinda Moragoda and Bodhi Ranasinghe reportedly met Dr Amunugama. But the dissident MP had said he had not accepted anything from the PA upto now. He claimed he had been treated shabbily by the leadership. Though Kalutara district MP Mahinda Samarasinghe is also reported to have met the President separately there is no confirmation of this, or of whether he supports Mr. Amunugama views of a national government. He is now in Norway.

Amidst all these squabbles, Mr. Wickremesinghe took a tough line and told the recent group meeting that any one who did not want to fall in line with his policy was free to move out. He also moved to consolidate his position by appointing confidants as organisers to various electorates. Among them are former BOI chairman and Gampaha District campaign manager Rohitha Bogollagama, Milinda Moragoda who spearheaded the campaign in Colombo and Provincial Council member Gamini Gooneratne.

Mr. Bogollagama will be the organiser for Nikaveratiya and Mr. Moragoda for Ratmalana while Mr. Gooneratne is assigned Attanagalla..

In one of the most positive developments of the week, the PA and the UNP had a joint meeting with the business community leaders to discuss ways of solving the ethnic conflict.

Earlier, when the business leaders met the UNP delegation on Tuesday, co-ordinating committee chairman Lalith Kotelawala said the UNP had agreed to meet the PA soon after the southern provincial elections. When the UNP delegation headed by former minister A. C. S. Hameed agreed, Mr. Kotelawala immediately called minister G. L. Peiris on his cellular phone to ask for a date. "We got the UNP to agree for a joint meeting, " he told Prof. Peiris. Thereafter, Mr. Hameed spoke to Prof. Peiris for a while and agreed to meet on Thursday.

Mr. Hameed then told Mr. Kotelawala that the business leaders should now talk to the LTTE. At this stage, both Mr. Kotelawala and Keells Group chief Ken Balendra said that they had not so far agreed to anything of that sort. But Mr. Hameed insisted that there was such an agreement.

Mr Kotelawala then called for the minutes of the last meeting and said there was no mention about the business leaders being asked to meet the LTTE. Mr. Hameed said he was not accepting those minutes as he clearly remembered such a proposal. Mr. Kotelawala said the PA and the UNP should reach an agreement on this matter before the business leaders took an initiative to talk to the LTTE.

Responding, Mr. Hameed said that the UNP and PA delegation should meet first and then convene another meeting with the business leaders.

But Mr. Kotelawala showed a keen interest in taking part in the discussions between the PA and the UNP saying they had been making efforts for a long time to bring the two major parties together. Thereafter the UNP delegation agreed to accommodate Mr. Kotelawala for a meeting in parliament with the PA.

Mr. Balendra who looked disturbed over the move to keep the business leaders out of the PA-UNP meeting, asked why that was being done.

Mr. Hameed said it was only an informal meeting between the PA and the UNP and they would come back to the business leaders.

At Thursday's meeting, Minister Peiris said that if the PA and the UNP could agree on issues like land and police matters, they could then go into the technical issues.

Prof. Peiris invited K. N. Choksy to go into the matter. Mr. Choksy told the minister the Tamils wanted to be sure that what was given by one government was not taken away by another. "The Tamils want this guarantee," he said.

Mr. Hameed said while the minorities felt that a future government might withdraw what was given, that a section of the majority community wanted an assurance that the Tamils would not run away with what was given.

Mr. Hameed said: "The challenge before us is to prove that devolution is not separation and that it would be helpful if the PA and the UNP could first agree on what is to be devolved and the unit of devolution."

Once the PA and the UNP reach an agreement on devolution, they could agree to mandate the business leaders to meet the LTTE with the concurrence of the President and the Opposition leader.

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