Political Column  

Moves to have Mahinda as President
By Our Political Editor
The President came out, with all cylinders firing, so to say, during her first interview to the local media (Govt. TV for sure) this week in the aftermath of the tsunami disaster. It has been her long established practice to tongue-lash her critics at such interviews, if you can call these 'interviews'. She was quite restrained when she was interviewed by the foreign TV journalists like Sir David Frost.

She missed out on being interviewed by CNN's chief international correspondent Christiana Amanpour simply because her media office did not know who she was when a request for an appointment was made. Might have been a blessing in disguise, anyway, after she was roughed up the last time by CNN's Zain Verghee.

Sri Lanka government TV, however, was her turf. And she could say what she liked and get away with it. She slammed three sets of people, those who criticised her nominees for the three committees that ran the post-tsunami relief and rehabilitation work; those who said her government was corrupt and inept at handling the situation; and those who were critical of the 100-metre buffer zone she was advocating for construction on the coastal belt.

Her critics say those whom she criticised were her own sister, her sister's friend, and her brother, in that order. That is, however, not entirely so. Her main target was, clearly, the Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, whom she did not name, when she said that there were those who wanted donor agencies not to give aid to Sri Lanka, an accusation hotly denied by the Opposition, and by some of the donor agencies after government media followed up on it by saying that Wickremesinghe's visit to Norway and Britain was to ask those governments not to give aid to Sri Lanka.

There was also some discontent within her own camp. Her trusted confidante, Tara de Mel, took very many by surprise when she suddenly packed her bags and left the Centre for National Operations (CNO), the nerve centre for relief operations, winding up the centre with her departure. There was no pre-announcement, and her colleague, Tilak Ranavirajah, the chairman of one of the other Presidential committees (Law and Order) made a damning admission that only 30 per cent of the tsunami-affected people had received relief.

There indeed was a lot of criticism about the CNO's work, and how relief was not getting to the affected people. Some of the committee's members were making rude remarks in private about its chairperson. The usual bitching that goes on in high places by people vying for the attention of the bigwigs, and where kissing usually goes by favour. No one came to the defence of Tara de Mel. No one. Instead, the government media confirmed what Ranavirajah said, adding salt to the wound -- even saying, in its editorials (which are usually vetted by the powers-that-be), how magnanimous the government was to make such an admission.

Ms. de Mel was too lady-like to make a rebuttal, if any. Having switched her mobile phone off, she went incommunicado, a victim of in-house politics. She must have thought tackling the corrupt national school principals and the tsunami-like school admissions issue, was a far more meritorious task.

During the Presidential 'interview' Kumaratunga was not asked, nor did she volunteer to say anything about a very close call her UPFA government had the previous week, when the second biggest coalition partner, the JVP, almost gave notice of quitting the Alliance. Like the tsunami, the JVP is likened to a seaquake about to occur. There are rumblings, and the tremors in the political Richter scale are recording high-levels, but the PA leadership of the UPFA coalition is not taking the readings seriously.

What seems to bother the JVP is not the agreement signed between the PA and the JVP with much fanfare, and in the glare of all the publicity, at the BMICH on January 19 last year. This was the formation of the UPFA, which was the pre-cursor to the defeat of the UNP government three months later. What bothers the JVP, is what it thinks is the flagrant violations of the second agreement that was signed - the same day - but sans all the fanfare, between the SLFP (not the PA) and the JVP. This document was signed between Maithripala Sirisena as general secretary of the SLFP, and Tilvin Silva of the JVP, and referred to the procedural arrangements in the event of a UPFA government. It referred to issues like cabinet positions, government appointments and other important decisions that needed to be taken from time-to-time when in office.

For the past few weeks, this second document, and its provisions are what have kept disturbing the JVP. At both their politburo and central committee-levels, this second document is what is at issue, not the first document which broadly deals with policy issue, on which (probably with the exception of the issue on LTTE's demand for ISGA, on which position the SLFP has also been taking shifting stances) they have no major problems.

The JVP leadership has been keeping Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar and Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera posted on their differences. In fact, I referred last week to how Kadirgamar, quite oblivious to the fact, prevented the JVP from making a public announcement giving the government notice it would quit the Alliance when he explained what the government was doing in regard to the relief efforts.

At the discussions within the JVP leadership they feel that these complaints of theirs are not getting registered with President Kumaratunga. That she is not taking their complaints seriously. President Kumaratunga, somewhat distracted by the tsunami, had her own game plan for the immediate future. Her term of office properly expires this year. Certainly that is what the UNP is saying. She has a trick up her sleeve to extend the term, but that is only till the end of next year, not much longer.

Before the tsumani, she was working out a twin-strategy of bringing in constitutional amendments by working out a deal with the LTTE, and winning over UNP MPs to her side. These amendments, worked out by MPs Wijedasa Rajapakse, Mahinda Aluthgamage, and Jayampathy Wickramaratne etc., under the stewardship of Minister D.E.W. Gunasekera would have enabled her to come to Parliament going back to the Westminster-style of government saying this Presidential form of government is the bane of good governance.

There is a perception within the JVP hierarchy that the President is moving away from her earlier strategy believing it's not going to work, and time is running out. The new plan, is to work a deal with Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse. A rapprochement with the Premier is what is on the cards. As everyone knows, Rajapakse virtually stormed his way into 'Temple Trees', demanding the job. President Kumaratunga had given a clear indication to Kadirgamar that she would like to appoint him, and the JVP backed Kadirgamar, in writing, over Rajapakse.

Months followed where Rajapakse's camp felt that the PM was not been given his dues, treated worse than a peon, but the irrepressible son of Ruhuna could not be easily kept down. As the master of the art of self-promotion through the media, Mahinda Rajapakse got still extra coverage due to the tsunami factor, especially in the early days when he ran the government in the absence of President Kumaratunga. The current thinking is to make Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse, the President just before Kumaratunga's term of office ends. The formula for this is for her to step down, have Parliament elect the next President, which is constitutionally permitted, usually in the case of a President being assassinated (like in the case of the appointment of President D.B. Wijetunga) or a President being impeached. But it also permits the case where the President resigns.

Prime Minister Rajapakse has been on a major public relations campaign ever since he went into 'Temple Trees', initially for four months, and President Kumaratunga believes that he could defeat the UNP's declared candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe if Mahinda Rajapakse is clothed with the powers of the President during the campaign.

President Kumaratunga will, however, retain the SLFP presidency in this power-sharing exercise, a situation akin to the Sonia Gandhi power-behind-the throne situation in India. The JVP is in a dilemma. It has vowed to see that Wickremesinghe will not become the President of this country.

At the beginning its dislike for Mahinda Rajapakse was not a secret. And the feelings were mutual. Now, however, relations have thawed. They are working together, in a kind of a way, in the tsunami-hit Hambantota district, the power-base of both sides. Not all JVPers support Rajapakse, though, and not all oppose him either. The JVP has yet to take a decision on this issue.

In the UNP camp there is some concern. The tsunami affected their plans for an election this year as well. In December last year, their thinking was that the economy will collapse by the middle of the year, with the rising cost-of-living. Now, elections are the last thing in the minds of the people, and the cost-of-living issue pales into insignificance in the face of the tsunami disaster.

There is also the trouble of keeping a tight-knit entity when in Opposition. Just this week, its chief opposition whip Mahinda Samarasinghe had complained to a TV host that he needed to re-think his options. This came when he was kept out of a television chat show on government TV by a fiat of the acting UNP leader Karu Jayasuriya, who said he was acting on an edict from party leader Wickremesinghe who was touring Norway with his de-facto international affairs adviser Milinda Moragoda.

Samarasinghe was asked to step down when party deputy general secretary Tissa Attanayake called him, and said that the High Command had asked Kabeer Hashim to replace him. When he contacted Jayasuriya for clarification, the orders were confirmed. Samarasinghe was not amused, and naturally so. He was then to complain to confidants about the way the party treated him, saying the party hierarchy was being run by a coterie. He then went on to refer to a telephone call he received on his birthday from Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse, but received no calls from his own party hierarchy.

Premier Rajapakse is already campaigning. Mahinda Samarasinghe was not the only one to get a call for his birthday last Sunday from 'Temple Trees'. On Wednesday this week, UNP front-liner Lakshman Kiriella also received a call from Rajapakse for his birthday.

At Wednesday's UPFA parliamentary group meeting, the JVP-PA confrontation surfaced, but both sides refrained from an all-out war. President Kumaratunga was presiding, and she began with a lengthy explanation about all that she had done in the weeks after the tsunami disaster. She said that the tsunami came without warning (the understatement of the year), and that there was a lot of criticism about the government's handling of the relief work (the JVPers were seen nodding in approval).

She went on and on, until she came to the issue of housing. JVP propaganda secretary Wimal Weerawansa broke the monologue by saying there was a need to build permanent houses, not temporary ones. The President reacted by giving some figures, suggesting that the government now has to increase by 18-fold, the number of houses it builds per year. She referred to the shortage of timber, sand and masons as she went on.

She then targeted the UNP at this stage. She said the UNP's deputy leader Karu Jayasuriya kept attending the all-party meetings, but after six meetings has suddenly decided to take up issue, and the party is beginning to provoke the people. She started on Ranil Wickremesinghe and accused him of stopping foreign aid to Sri Lanka.

Weerawansa again broke in, saying how the JVP was being sidelined in the relief work, and how UPFA cabinet ministers were making official visits to areas represented by the JVP. He cited the example of Trincomalee where JVP MP Jayantha Wijesekera was kept out of all engagements connected with the visit of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Law and Order Secretary Tilak Ranavirajah and Minister Maitripala Sirisena.

Minister Sirisena responded by saying he was only part of a delegation. The President then said her visit to Galle was a surprise one, and her Presidential Security Division had asked her not to make any announcement for 'security reasons'. Shot back the JVP, whether her PSD considered JVP MPs as security threats to the President.

Ignoring the snide remark, the President then went after the NGOs, something that the JVP MPs would have found more to their liking. She mentioned one NGO by name and explained how it collected funds, saying that she had asked her ministers not co-operate with it.

The evening was getting late, almost 9 pm, when she asked that the next day's cabinet meeting be postponed, and that the discussion could go on till later than night. (She also put off the National Security Council meeting the next day.) The President then said how representatives of 45 countries had visited her, and that they had all commended her government for the way it handled the relief work despite being a Third World country.

Finally, she came to the 100-metre rule, and said that some "stupid" people were opposing this. "Some of them think that the tourists must be able to step onto the beach straight from their rooms," she said. Her brother, Tourism Anura Bandaranaike looked thoroughly uncomfortable with the remarks, but stood his ground. He put forward proposals to get duty-free vehicles for those affected, including micro vans, mini-coaches and vans. He proposed duty-free imported fittings. He proposed the damaged or partially damaged hotels be permitted to re-build where they stood. Any new hotels required approval on a case-by-case basis, he argued.

Bandaranaike came in for a volley of thunder and criticism from his colleagues, especially Mangala Samaraweera, Dinesh Gunawardene and A.H.M. Fowzie. The JVP, the party Bandaranaike claims he engineered to join in the UPFA coalition, joined in the criticism of his proposal. "When we ask fishermen not to build, how are we going to justify tourists staying within 100-metres", the JVP asked.

Later, Bandaranaike said he was vindicated and that his proposals were eventually accepted. Others disagreed. There was no official communique either from the Tourism Ministry confirming the proposal, or from any other quarter rejecting it. It was to typify the confused state of government decision-making right now.

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