The Political Column

14th November 1999

Ashraff jittery over crossings

By our Political Correspondent

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Disagreement among constituent partners of the PA on the proposed constitutional amendment, to give legal effect to defections has put the Kumaratunga administration in a tight spot.

This unforeseen problem arose at a PA executive committee meeting on Monday at Temple Trees.

It was Minister and SLMC leader M.H.M. Ashraff who first raised this matter when he complained that most of the UNPers who defected were towing a largely Sinhala chauvinistic line.

He said the SLMC and other minority parties were seriously concerned about this. Mr. Ashraff also expressed fears that the Sinhala hard-liners who had crossed over would exert undue pressure on the President to drive her away from the stand she has taken on minority issues. But the President reassured him no such thing would happen.

Not satisfied, Mr. Ashraff asked whether the defectors could be made to give a commitment to the peace process mainly through the devolution package.The President agreed, but many analysts have doubts about how hard-liners such as Stanley Kalpage and Susil Moonesinghe would respond to it. Both of them have been highly critical of the devolution package, especially what they see as the aspects that go against the unitary state.

In the same breath, Minister Ashraff also queried the President of the purpose of accommodating UNP dissidents in the PA fold.

Mr. Ashraff also queried whether there was any other hidden agenda behind the defections. He said they could in any event stay on only for 90 days till the Supreme Court ruled on their expulsion from Parliament, as provided for in the Constitution. The Communist party leader intervened to say it could be even 60 days.

The President in response said the government could protect the defectors through special legislation allowing crossovers. But Mr. Ashraff dropped a bombshell saying his party would not support such a bill in parliament. A baffled President Kumaratunga asked him why and Mr. Ashraff said it was because such a Bill would undermine or destroy smaller parties.

SLFP General Secretary Dharmasiri Senanayake then asked Mr. Ashraff whether he would oppose even a conscious vote on this issue. Mr. Ashraff did not give a clear answer but said the SLMC preferred a situation where anyone crossing over should seek re-election by the people.

The Opposition UNP also took up the proposed crossover amendment at its working committee on Monday. Constitutional expert K. N. Choksy, said his view was that such an amendment would need not only a 2/3 majority, but approval by the people at a referendum.UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe said the amendments were likely to be tabled next month and he would like the amendment to include provisions for the setting up of an independent Commission of Elections, an independent Police Commission and an independent Public Service Commission. The UNP has made such proposals for several months or years but the Government says they would be included in the proposed new constitution.

The main topic at the UNP meeting was the defection of senior members known as the Amunugama rebel group. General Secretary Gamini Atukorala and Mr. Choksy said the rebels had violated the party constitution by pledging support for President Kumaratunga at the upcoming elections.

Thereafter, John Amaratunga moved that the rebels be expelled and the resolution was passed unanimously. The speakers at the meeting also expressed concern over the debacle in the Wanni and said they believed most of the problems were arising because of political strategy becoming interlinked with military strategy.

The rebels were obviously not surprised by the expulsion. They were expecting it and said they would challenge it in courts.

The Supreme court is bound by the Constitution to give a decision within two months but the rebels are hoping President Kumaratunga would be able to push through the crossover legislation before that.

Most analysts believe a lot would depend on the December 21 presidential election. If Ms. Kumaratunga wins there is likely to be a major defection from the UNP to form a national government and Mr. Ashraff's reservation would become ineffective or meaningless.

The UNP is also known to be discussing some possible crossovers from the PA. But the chances at present are remote.

While national issues like the ethnic conflict and talks with the LTTE are on the horizon Mr, Wickremesinghe's immediate problem is the erosion of the party through defections. During a recent visit to Panduwasnuwara, he made it a point to have breakfast with the father of dissident MP Chula Bandara.

Both the father and the brother Nimal Bandara are known to be unhappy about the defection. It is reported that Chula Bandara met UNP chairman Karu Jayasuriya and might consider crossing back.

A similar drama took place on Monday when Sarath Amunugama took UNP parliamentarian Vincent Perera to join the PA. Mr. Perera's son-in law, Kurunegala district MP Chandana Alawatuwela, and his son, immediately informed the UNP that Mr. Perera had allegedly been 'kidnapped'.

A worried General Secretary Athukorala rushed into the committee room at Siri Kotha where the UNP leader was meeting Rohitha Bogollagama. He broke the news and said they were coming to meet him.

The same evening Mr. Perera was seen at a hotel in Colombo with Dr. Amunugama to meet the media. Mr. Perera reportedly pledged support for President Kumaratunga but the next morning he turned up at a JSS meeting at UNP headquarters.Though Mr. Perera has apparently decided to stay with the UNP, the rebel group says there would be more crossovers soon.

At the UNP meeting Mr. Wickremesinghe explained the background to the defections. He said Mr. Amunugama had met him and asked whether his work was recognised. Mr. Wickremesinghe said he had explained that as an opposition party there were not many posts to be given out. He said Mr. Moonesinghe had wanted to handle Buddhist affairs but he told him he could do it with Karu Jayasuriya and W.J.M. Lokubandara who were already handling it.

Mr. Wickremesinghe said Nanda Mathew during discussions with him had referred mainly to some problems in Balangoda.

Referring to the war situation Mr. Wickremesinghe said there should be more discipline in the armed forces and battalions should,be shifted from place to place. He said he believed the Commander-in Chief should have resigned in the face of the debacle but she was having kiribath with the rebels.

In the meantime, the UNP is trying to get the American Carter Centre to monitor the presidential elections fearing a repeat of something like Wayamba. Working committee member Bogollagama is co-ordinating matters with Richard Smythe of the US Embassy to bring representatives from the Carter Centre as monitors.

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