The Political Column

21st December 1997

GL hopes for deal with UNP

By Our Political Correspondent

Anura and that Party

Will the govt. go ahead with local elections in the Jaffna peninsula? No one is certain, but it is likely that the President will fully review the situation before deciding.

Tamil parties want the polls put off, saying the situation is not conducive but the government apparently wants to restore civil rule in the area soon, so that the armed forces could concentrate more on military matters.

The govt. also obviously wants to show Western donors that normalcy is being restored in the north, so that the aid promised by those countries could flow there.

Western donors through their diplomats are known to be checking on their own and many believe the situation is improving.

“This is a positive sign,” a Western diplomat told this column, but some diplomats are still not satisfied. “It’s an army of occupation there,” one of them said. Overall, most observers believe the armed forces are playing a major role to restore normalcy there despite the constant threat of attacks by the LTTE.

Tamil parties are insisting the conditions for elections are not good though the LTTE has not formally opposed the polls and it is unlikely to disrupt it largely for the fear of further antagonising the West.

It seems that the main problem for most Tamil parties is to find suitable candidates and assure them adequate security.

To contest the polls to all 17 local bodies, a party would have to find about 300 candidates - a difficult proposition given the situation there.

So most parties might field candidates only for a few councils.

The Tamil parties are also finding it difficult to field the required number of candidates under the age of 35, as laid down in the election laws.

The law stipulates at least 40% of the candidates should be under the age of 35. Most of the youth below 35 are unwilling to come forward as candidates or apparently have their loyalties elsewhere.

The main Tamil party, the TULF, has decided to field candidates only for six councils, including the Jaffna Municipality and Chavakachcheri Urban Council.

The TULF’s candidate for Mayor of Jaffna will be Sarojini Yogeswaran, wife of the slain TULF MP.

On Tuesday several Tamil politicians met the President briefly to place their case before her. They included TULF General Secretary R. Sampanthan, PLOTE leader D. Siddharthan and EPDP’s Sivadasan. The occasion was the dinner hosted by Speaker K.B. Ratnayake for MPs at the end of the Budget debate.

President Kumaratunga who had some other business in Parliament that evening was on time for the Speaker’s dinner, but only a few MPs were there. The UNP was represented by Chief Opposition Whip Wijeyapala Mendis who has a sword over his head and A.H.M. Azwer.

Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe excused himself saying he had another engagement.

Some analysts believe Mr. Wickremesinghe conveniently avoided the dinner because he did not wish to discuss the package issue with the President.

At the dinner the President spoke to almost everybody there. When she was about to leave the premises, three Tamil MPs walked up to her car probably feeling it was the best time for them to put their idea across to her.

When the President paused for a moment before getting into the car the MPs spoke to her.

“Madam, why don’t you consider a postponement?” one of them said.

But the President was firm. She said she would not put it off under any circumstances.

“I have given you enough time - more than twelve months and I am not going to put it off. It’s upto you now,” she said.

Sensing that the President was taking a tough stand Mr. Siddharthan and Mr. Sivadasan retreated but Mr. Sampanthan remained.

He kept on insisting the ground situation was not conducive.

Finally the President appeared to be more responsive, asking whether elections could be put off after nominations were received. The MP said they could and the TULF is optimistic that its views would be considered and the polls put off under the Public Security Act.

However legal sources say it would be difficult even under the Emergency to put elections off after the process has begun.

A similar situation arose in 1994 when the TULF asked for a postponement of the General Elections in the Jaffna district.

At that time, the Commissioner of Elections could not set up more than 75 polling booths in the whole of Jaffna district due to LTTE presence in the area.

Then the TULF went to the Court of Appeal seeking an order to put off the polls. The Court President then was Justice Sarath N. Silva, now the Attorney General. He held that the elections should not be postponed once the process has begun. Thus legal sources say postponing the elections even under the Emergency would create a bad precedent.

In the future any govt. could postpone elections citing the ground conditions if the situation is not favourable for it.

If the matter is referred to Attorney General Sarath Silva he is likely to decide on the same lines he did when he headed the Court of Appeal. Thus it is unlikely the govt. will put off the elections.

But this could cause fresh problems since the Tamil parties friendly with the Kumaratunga administration are planning a hunger strike in Colombo to support their call for a postponement.

On Tuesday the presence of President Kumaratunga in Parliament, a few hours before the final vote on the Budget, left many MPs wondering why she was there.

One purpose was obviously to woo the CWC whose members had decided to abstain from voting. She also wanted to attend the dinner hosted by the Speaker.

Not only the President, but TULF top-rung member Dr. Neelan Thiruchelvam also rushed to Parliament on hearing that the CWC was trying to abstain.

He was with a Colombo businessman when he was informed of the CWC’s decision.

The reason for the CWC decision was a relatively minor matter - the Agarapathana rural electrification scheme was declared open by the Deputy Minister of Power and Energy despite protests by the MP’s of the CWC in the area.

They said that it was CWC Parliamentarian Sivalingam who initiated the project and but when it reached its final stages, Leader of the Upcountry People’s Liberation Front and Deputy Minister Chandrasekeran had made arrangements to declare it open, even without informing the CWC.

The CWC protested to the Ministry but it went ahead with the plan of Mr. Chandrasekeran.

When the CWC MPs briefed their Leader S. Thondaman on this, he directed them to abstain from voting on the Budget.

They told Chief Government Whip Richard Pathirana and he alerted the President.

The govt. could have got approval of the Budget without the support of the CWC but the President apparently wanted to win back the CWC because it was politically important to her.

On arrival at the Parliamentary Complex, the President went upto the Government Parliamentarians lobby, though it was quite uncustomary for an Executive President to do that. She was seen in the area meant for MPs, talking to her Ministers and other members.

She also invited Minister Thondaman and CWC MPs to discuss their grievance.

The President after patiently listening, reportedly assured the CWC that such an incident would not be allowed in the future.

The CWC then decided to vote with the govt. ending a minor hick-up.

While in Parliament, the President heard the opposition fire salvos on the government ranks on charges of corruption and mismanagement. She must have thought how dare the UNP do this, in the aftermath of its terrible record before 1994.

On Wednesday soon after the Cabinet meeting, she called in two Ministers and spoke of the need to go ahead with the motion to strip former Minister Wijeyapala Mendis of his civic rights for misuse of power.

“We have a duty by the people since we promised in our manifesto that we would take action against corrupt politicians,” she said.

“But can we push it through Parliament?” one Minister asked while the others expressed doubt about UNP supporting the motion.

“Whether we could push it through Parliament or not is a different matter, we should show the country that we have taken some action. They are making various allegations against us. I was carefully listening to all this in Parliament,” she said.

The President said that when the vote was taken on Mr. Mendis it should be by name. “Then we can reveal the names of the people who support corrupt politicians to continue in their positions,” the President said.

A Special Presidential Commission recently found Mr. Mendis guilty of misuse of power in a land transaction and recommended that he be stripped of his civic rights.

The resolution is now on the Order Paper but the party leaders have not yet decided when to take it up for debate.

It is now likely the matter will come up early in the New Year.

The UNP is divided on the Mendis issue. While some seniors have expressed their support to the former Minister, the back-benchers, mainly the UNP turks think it is time to clean up the party.

What the party leadership wants at this stage is to settle the matter without much embarrassment. So if it comes to a push the party is likely to ask Mr. Mendis to resign from Parliament.

But it appears that Mr. Mendis is adamant and wouldn’t want to resign.

Some believe that Mr. Mendis is pinning his hopes on the petition filed by former Treasury Secretary R. Paskaralingam in Court.

Mr. Paskaralingam is challenging the SPC recommendations to impose civic disabilities on him saying the Commission was not properly constituted.

The matter is now before the Supreme Court.

The President is also known to be concerned about allegations against the govt. on the locomotives tender and the proposed deal with the P&O company for the Colombo Port’s Queen Elizabeth Quay.

When the opposition hurled missiles at the government on its decision to give the locomotives tender to a French firm, Minister G.L. Peiris was all alone in facing the onslaught against him and the President.

Minister Mahinda Rajapakse who was in his office in the Parliamentary Complex watching the proceedings on internal TV rushed to the House to back Dr. Peiris.

He raised a point of order, when the opposition speakers were attacking the President, saying it was not proper to attack the President where she could not defend herself. Opposition MPs then toned down.

Later Dr. Peiris was seen to thank Mr. Rajapakse for his rescue operation.

But the same support and co-operation was not seen in Parliament when Ports and Shipping Minister A.H.M. Ashraff came under heavy attack over the P&O issue.

The UNP launched wave after wave of attacks on Mr. Ashraff making him worried as to whether the opposition is targeting him on a communal line.

Mr. Ashraff also feels he was left in the cold by govt. ranks and that he had to fight a lone battle with the opposition on the P&O issue.

Mr. Ashraff has told friends it was not his pet project but the President’s.

Initially Mr. Ashraff opposed the more sparking off a political controversy in the govt. but it was settled finally after he apparently gave into pressure.

Mr. Ashraff is concerned that some govt. members instead of defending him has passed on notes giving opposition MPs more ammunition to fire at the besieged Ports Minister.

This was done deliberately to embarrass Mr. Ashraff, a prominent SLMC MP told this column.

The SLMC is also perturbed by the attitude of the SLFPers in the PA who are thinking only in terms of SLFP policies and trying to treat other constituent parties as total outsiders.

In view of this, one result was Mr. Ashraff kept away from the Speaker’s dinner though two prominent SLMCers M.L.M. Hisbullah and Rauf Hakeem attended. The dinner is now being dubbed as the “party of 13” with the President, Speaker and the Deputy Speaker at the head table.

Though it is one of the tasks of the opposition to be critical of govt. misdoings, the UNP is also not in a good shape as far as its strategy is concerned.

In Parliament UNP General Secretary Gamini Atukorale launched an attack on the government with full force over the manner the locomotive tender was awarded to a French firm.

But whole impact of his speech was reduced by former Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel who accepted the explanation of Minister Peiris.

Dr Peiris argued that the tender was awarded to the French firm G.E.C. Alsthom because it had complied with all the specifications.

Dr. Peiris said the President could not agree with the majority view of the Cabinet Appointed Tender Board (CATB).

“The simple principle in tender procedure is that tenders should comply with the specifications which are laid down to get what you want”. In this particular tender it was specifically mentioned the wheel base should not exceed 10'.6". The CATB had considered a number of tenders which had not complied with this specification and had recommended two of them.

“The President then referred the matter to a Cabinet Sub Committee and she had done the right thing.”

Replying, Mr. De Mel said he was prepared to accept Minister Peiris’ explanation.

Besides this, the meeting between Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and Minister G.L. Peiris was a talking point over the weekend.

Dr. Peiris told Mr. Wickremesinghe the government had no idea of going it alone on the package and said it was willing to accommodate the UNP.

Dr. Peiris asked as to whether Mr. Wickremesinghe could tell the government about the UNP’s stand by January 15.

When Mr. Wickremesinghe said he did not think that it could be possible, Dr. Peiris said the govt. would then wait till the end of January, after that there would be no option but to hold the non-binding Referendum as planned earlier.

Minister Peiris was however optimistic that the government would be able to strike a deal with the UNP on devolution.

“I hope we can arrive at some arrangement,” Dr. Peiris told colleagues at the Speaker’s dinner.

Anura and that Party

UNP MP Anura Bandaranaike has written to us seeking to clarify a reference we made to him last week about a conversation he had with Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar at a tea party the Minister hosted at Parliament after the Foreign Ministry votes.

Mr. Bandaranaike says it is true that the Minister invited him to dinner and he accepted the invitation. But, he says, that when Mr. Kadirgamar said that this might however be reported in a Sunday newspaper, he (Mr. Bandaranaike) never said, “only one paper will do that and I can stop it,” rather that “I will try and persuade them not to write about it.”

We realise the embarrassment this has caused Mr. Bandaranaike and given the polite response from him, we will not embarrass him further. Suffice to say he used all his persuasive charm for us to carry his clarification.

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