Political Column
By a Special Correspondent

CBK's powers haunt UNF govt.
The UNF government after being in power for nearly eight months is becoming
gradually uncomfortable with the dissolution threat hanging over its head like the sword of Damocles.

Under the constitution, the President could dissolve Parliament after it completes one year.

Minister of Economic Reforms, Science and Technology Milinda Moragoda. LTTE chief negotiator Anton Balasingham , ambassador Bernard Goonetilleke and the Norwegian facilitation team consisting of Erik Solheim, Vidar Helgesen and Norwegian Ambassador to Sri Lanka. Jon Westborg at the meeting held in Oslo.

Even if the President has no intention of dissolving parliament, the fear that she could exercise this power pervades the political atmosphere. Thus it is no surprise when the government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe entertains such fears and doubts the President's assurance that parliament would not be dissolved.

In one political analyst's words, promises lose their sanctity in politics. True to this saying, the Wickremesinghe administration is now treading a cautious path.

One option available to the government is to pass a resolution in parliament to dissolve parliament before it completes one year and go for snap polls with the objective of achieving greater political stability.

According to insiders, this option is increasingly becoming more viable since the President has rejected a constitutional amendment aimed at placing restrictions on her powers to dissolve parliament.

The President's view is that a government should not tinker with the President's power as and when it wants. Recently she threw down the gauntlet at the government asking it to take steps to abolish the executive presidency instead of trying to kill it piecemeal. But she did not respond when the government said it would prefer an executive Prime Minister instead of an executive president.

It's worth mentioning here that when the two main parties held talks on devolution in August 2000 just before the elections that year, both these parties had differences of opinion about the abolition of the executive presidency.

While the PA maintained that the President should be allowed to complete her six year term in terms of the mandate she received at the 1999 Presidential elections, the UNP called for the immediate abolition of the executive presidency.

When the talks reached a stalemate, the Kumaratunga administration tried to push the constitutional reforms through parliament and failed in the face of UNP opposition. Ms. Kumaratunga had no option but to call for fresh elections in October 2000.

Coming back to the present crisis, the UNP has only one option: Pushing a constitutional amendment through Parliament to restrict the President's power to dissolve parliament. This could happen only if the UNF has the support of opposition members to get the required two-thirds majority.

Premier Wickremesinghe believes that such a move is necessary to ensure the stability of the government and to take the peace process forward, especially at a time when dates for face-to-face talks with the LTTE have been fixed.

The UNF thinking is that the President could hold the entire peace process to ransom as long as she retains her constitutional power to dissolve parliament.

Minister G. L. Peiris told this column that he was sure that the government could obtain the required two-thirds majority to push the amendment. '"There is no doubt about it," Prof. Peiris said adding that the amendment would be presented in Parliament shortly.

At a dinner hosted by Prof. Peiris to celebrate his 56th birthday on Tuesday, few PA stalwarts were present. Among them were Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, Richard Pathirana, A.H.M. Fowzie and Indika Gunawardena all former ministers of the PA regime.

Mr. Fernandopulle was quite open about his opposition to go for a snap election. He said the PA would be reduced to a weaker opposition if elections were held today.

His view is also echoed by some PA parliamentarians who say the President and the Prime Minister should come to an amicable settlement. But they are disappointed that the President is not ready for a compromise.

The UNP has moved fast and spoken to a large number of PA Parliamentarians, and the outcome appears to be satisfactory.

The UNP has included an indemnity clause in the amendment bill to ensure political security for opposition parliamentarians who will vote for it. Notwithstanding any existing provision in the constitution, they will be immune from any Supreme Court proceedings against them initiated by their own party. In addition, their future too will be well secured, according to UNF insiders.

The President, through her party, is likely to challenge the constitutional validity of the amendment, but the UNP thinking is that the Supreme Court could go only as far as to suggest that the bill should also be approved in a referendum since it proposes to strip the President of some powers that were sanctioned by the people.

All this has to be done before the end of next month because there is also a possibility that the President could prorogue Parliament and thereafter dissolve it, igniting a major political crisis.

The president has assured the nation that she will not use her powers to dissolve Parliament and added a rider that unlike other heads of states, she has not used most of the powers associated with the executive presidency.

But the UNP's position is that going by the past experience, the President has a weakness in keeping up promises. Therefore, it is important to go ahead with the amendment bill.

The new amendment bill envisages that the President should in consultation with the Prime Minister determine the mood of the legislature before taking steps to dissolve parliament prematurely.

Be that as it may, the government has achieved a major breakthrough when an official delegation led by Minister Milinda Moragoda managed to fix dates for the first round of talks with the LTTE.

Norwegian Deputy Minister Vidar Helgessen and LTTE Chief Negotiator Anton Balasingham met Minister Moragoda and peace envoy Bernard Gunatilleke in Oslo for crucial talks.

The talks in Thailand to be held between September 12 and 17 are likely to centre round the interim administration for the Northeast until a final settlement is reached. However, it is expected that other core issues would also be taken up though those things may not be included in the agenda.

The peace process and the talks will compel President Kumaratunga to remain as a silent observer and may tie her down even if she wants to exercise executive power and dissolve Parliament.

If she tries to dissolve parliament, it may not augur well for her own reputation as a stateswoman and peace lover.

The Norwegian facilitators are likely to work on the modalities of the Thai talks, the exact dates for which would be fixed in consultation with the government and the LTTE.

Amidst all these developments, the crisis within the SLMC reached dizzying heights when a group of SLMC members decided to write to the President and the Prime Minister that a referendum should be held in the Eastern province for the people in the area to decide whether they would agree to an LTTE-run interim administration.

The MPs led by A. L. Ataullah took this decision at a meeting in Parliament complex on Tuesday.

However, SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem had a lengthy discussion with the MPs later and persuaded them to withdraw their decision until the matter was discussed fully at the proper party forum.

The crisis within the SLMC was partly due the situation in the east and partly due to Mr. Hakeem's close association with SLMC National List MP Basheer Segu Dawood.

Insiders allege that Segu Dawood follows the leader everywhere and had virtually created a buffer, making it difficult for members to access the leader.

He is also known as the Anton Balasingham of the SLMC. Such is his power.

But for Mr. Hakeem, Mr. Segu Dawood is a sincere friend who would stand by him. So it is obvious that Mr. Hakeem tries to promote him in spite of opposition within.

At Wednesday's Cabinet meeting there was an interesting debate on the privatisation of the CWE. The President sent a note to the Cabinet making various suggestions and requesting that the CWE should be privatised as one unit and not section by section proposed by Minister Ravi Karunanayake.

The President's note to the Cabinet is as follows:

"Further to my Observations of 13.08.2002 on the Cabinet Memorandum submitted by the Minister of Commerce and Consumer Affairs on the 'Restructuring of the Co-operative Wholesale Establishment' dated 15th July 2002, I wish to make the following further observations:

(a) I am made to understand that, though a Memorandum is submitted at this stage and approval of the Cabinet of Ministers sought to restructure the CWE, work has already been started by the Minister on this, even before submitting a detailed restructuring plan and obtaining Cabinet approval for such plan.

(b) The Minister is reported to have formed seven companies as part of this programme.

(c) The minister is also reported to have authorized heavy capital expenditure for different divisions of the CWE, prior to privatizing the companies that he has formed. Some of the work already commenced or proceeding are as follows:

i. Building project at Jawatte.

ii. Same at Welisara.

iii. Purchase of vehicles for the transport division.

It is obvious that the huge capital expenditure involved in these and other similar projects on the eve of the privatization of the CWE will benefit the new owners, some of whom may have even been earmarked by now.

02. Another connected matter that I would like to raise with the Cabinet is the proper authority to undertake the privatization of this organization, if it is to be privatized at all. I believe it should be the Ministry of Finance, which owns the assets, on behalf of the Government. Naturally, PERC will be involved in the work, under its legitimate mandate.

03. In view of the above, while directing the minister to report as I indicated in my earlier observations, I would suggest that the Cabinet of ministers-

(a) Direct the Minister to stop, forthwith, all capital works that he has commenced or intends to commence at the CWE, prior to its privatization;

(b) Take a policy decision on the privatization of the CWE, once the report of the minister, as earlier decided is received and

(c) If it is decided to privatize this organization, then request the Ministry of Finance, with the assistance of the PERC, to take the necessary steps to do so, either through the Stock Exchange or by public tender."

In spite of this note, the President finally agreed to the cabinet memorandum put forward by Minister Karunanayake.

In an ensuing discussion, the President was asked by Minister Rajitha Senaratne as to why she had decided to pay compensation only for the victims of the 2001 election.

Minister Senaratne said that one of his offices too was damaged during the 2000 election. The President then said that she lost her eye, her mother's civic rights were taken away, her father lost his land and her husband was killed by the JVP.

At this juncture Minister Karunanayake said, it was she who wanted to tag along with the JVP.

The President was quick to snap back saying that she was talking only to the Prime Minister and not to others.

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