The political deadlock

Print edition : December 05, 2003

Buddhist monks in an anti-Wickremesinghe, pro-Kumaratunga rally in Colombo on November 7. - ROB ELLIOTT/AFP

There are only two ways out of the political crisis in Sri Lanka - dissolution of Parliament and fresh elections, and a forced attempt at cohabitation.

... All that the President has done is to take back some of the powers that are unquestionably and rightfully accorded to the President by the Constitution from a Minister to whom these powers were handed over in good faith, after these powers were exercised with callous irresponsibility.

- Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga (in her November 7 address to the nation)

It was a thinly veiled power grab. Nothing else. There was no security threat.

- Sri Lanka's Constitutional Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris (November 11)

IT was in several ways a showdown in the making. The constitutional and political standoff since November 4 has sent Sri Lanka into a state of suspended animation.

From the day the Ranil Wickremesinghe-led United National Front (UNF) won the 2001 parliamentary elections, Sri Lanka's politics was set for change. With Wickremesinghe as the Prime Minister and his arch political rival Chandrika Kumaratunga as the head of state, Sri Lanka's first real cohabitation government started working.

One initial problem - that of holding the Defence portfolio - was to haunt the Wickremesinghe administration nearly two years after it won the parliamentary majority. Successive Sri Lankan Presidents have held the Defence portfolio, but in 2001 the UNF was given the portfolio as it had won a mandate for peace. But on November 4 this year, it lost that portfolio, and along with it effective control over the peace process.

Supporters of Ranil Wickremesinghe around his motorcade on the road to Colombo on November 7, welcoming him upon his return from Washington.-ERANGA JAYAWARDENA/AP

The developments since November 4 have cast a spell of uncertainty over both the peace process and on issues of governance and could culminate either in forced cohabitation or in an extreme scenario - yet another general election.

From the signing of last year's ceasefire agreement to the recent presidential move, there was consistent, if controlled, friction between the President and the Prime Minister on both constitutional and political issues. The practical exclusion of Kumaratunga from the latest peace process, the inadequate media coverage of her reservations about the manner in which the peace process was handled, and attempts to erode the powers of the Executive President indicated a clear build-up of tensions.

The Wickremesinghe administration, for its part, feared the dissolution of Parliament after it completed one year in office, and so directed much of its attention to thwart any such move. Even in 2002, there were talks in political circles of an impeachment move against the President, if not for anything else, just to clip her power to dissolve Parliament. It was argued that if a move to impeach the President was put on the Order Paper of Parliament, then she would be restrained from dissolving the House. No such thing happened, however, and the President constantly kept asserting that she had the constitutional powers to send the entire Cabinet packing.

The constitutional offensive between the two parties took a political turn earlier this year when the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by Kumaratunga said that the main duty of an Opposition was to return to power. It was then that the power game started in earnest.

The SLFP had two broad strategies - either change the parliamentary configuration by encouraging defections or forge an alliance with the Sinhala hardline Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and face fresh polls. In the subsequent months, SLFP spokesmen made the point that there were "disgruntled" Members of Parliament in the UNF who would join the People's Alliance (P.A.). On another front, there were repeated claims since March that an alliance with the JVP would be announced "shortly".

As head of state, Kumaratunga was in a distinctly uncomfortable position. In her constitutional role, she was all-powerful. As a political entity, she was heading the main Opposition party. Pressure from her party started building up on her. A group within the SLFP mooted the idea of entering into an electoral alliance with the JVP, which, it said, would ensure victory in a parliamentary poll. It argued that the district-wise performance of the parties in the 2001 general elections showed that if the SLFP and the JVP were to join hands, it would be a formidable combination that could rout the UNF. The trouble with this arrangement was that Kumaratunga would have to make compromises on one of the pet projects in her political life - greater devolution of powers to the regions of Sri Lanka in order to solve the island's decades-old separatist conflict.

On this issue, Kumaratunga and the JVP are chalk and cheese. The SLFP too has its share of hardliners who could take the JVP stand - that a solution to the island's conflict can be effected only by a unitary constitution and by militarily defeating the LTTE. Added to this is her status as the Executive President - this is her second and final term in office.

Wickremesinghe, however, is in a more comfortable position. With nothing to lose and the presidency to gain, he would just have to bide his time until 2005, when the next presidential poll is due. His handling of the peace process, during this interregnum, could well earn him more brownie points.

In sharp contrast, the SLFP is still unsure who its presidential candidate will be. Kumaratunga's brother, Anura Bandaranaike, has made it known that he wants to contest. His rival within the party is Mahinda Rajapakse, the Leader of the Opposition who hails from the southern Hambantota district.

An electoral deal with the JVP, it is felt in political circles, would help Bandaranaike consolidate his hold on the party by easing out Rajapakse, who does not see eye to eye with the JVP. That the Marxist party has a stronghold in the south is one factor seen as working in Bandaranaike's favour.

Beyond these internal political divides in the SLFP, the President's move was probably triggered by failed expectations about defections from the UNP, according to some UNF Ministers. "Their intention was to induce our MPs to join them and have the issue wrapped and sealed when Parliament reconvened on November 19," a Minister said. With 130 MPs supporting the UNF, the possibility of a changed line-up in the 225-member House has faded.

Forced cohabitation, therefore, is the next option. With the die now cast, the manner in which the next phase of the island's volatile cohabitation politics moves would depend on how Wickremesinghe responds to the situation.

The UNF, with 114 MPs, depends largely on the support given to it by the 15-member Tamil National Alliance (TNA). The UNF also enjoys the support of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (12), the Ceylon Workers Congress (3), the Up Country People's Front (2) and one more MP. The P.A., with 77 MPs, is the second largest party, followed by the Left-radical JVP with 16 MPs.

Sri Lanka's elections is based on proportional representation and the list system. This makes ruling parties dependent on minority parties for a majority. In the weeks to follow, the stands taken by the Tamil and Muslim political parties would, therefore, be crucial in the numbers game.

A call for early elections will depend on the SLFP's moves to forge an alliance with the JVP. As these two parties hold sharply contrasting views on the peace process, the way out from an election that the island can ill-afford would be a forced, but sincere attempt at cohabitation.

Although Parliament is scheduled to reconvene on November 19, there is still a sense of uncertainty whether it would meet or be prorogued yet again or, in the worst-case scenario, be dissolved and fresh general elections called. If a snap poll were to be held now, it is likely to witness extreme nationalist undercurrents. The major gainers would be the pro-LTTE TNA and the JVP

For now, however, Sri Lanka's politics is in a state of suspended animation.

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