CRISES are brewing on both the political and peace-making fronts in Sri Lanka. Even as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) remained unyielding in its decision to stay away from further negotiations, a mini tussle began at the highest level of the government. At best it could be a minor distraction, at worst it could also raise serious political and constitutional questions.
The spat began not over something that would shake the foundations of the state structure, but over something as ubiquitous as lottery tickets. On May 9, the Executive President, Chandrika Kumaratunga, made an administrative decision to retake control of the Development Lotteries Board (DLB) - a main source of revenue for the President's Fund. Outraged, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe opposed the move to take over a body allotted to the Economic Reforms Ministry. The DLB was under the charge of Milinda Moragoda, a key Minister in the ongoing peace process. As the constitutional head of the Cabinet, Chandrika Kumaratunga wrote to Moragoda informing him about the decision to "bring the administration of the DLB" under her purview "with immediate effect".
(The DLB was under the Ministry of Finance until December 2001, when Wickremasinghe's United National Party (UNP)-led front won the parliamentary elections. During the Cabinet making process, the DLB was given to the Economic Reforms Ministry.)
Wickremasinghe responded by dashing off a letter to the President, saying: "I cannot agree to any subject or function assigned being changed by yourself without reference to the Prime Minister" as it was "a requirement of Article 44 of the Constitution". He requested her to "stay publication of the Gazette notification".
According to Article 44, "the President shall, from time to time, in consultation with the Prime Minister, whenever he considers such consultation to be necessary", determine Cabinet making.
The crisis spilled over to the streets. Supporters of the UNP and Chandrika's Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) reportedly exchanged blows at the Government Press. The Government Printer, confused by two conflicting directives, one from the President asking him to Gazette the order and the other from the Media Minister asking him not to do so, withheld printing the notification. The police barricaded the press.
The Opposition lost no time to comment that the action signalled the "return to the dark days of the UNP" and that "the first step towards dictatorship and a police state" had been taken.
Political observers view the presidential move as "a test balloon". Moreover, with plans afoot for a political pact between the SLFP and the Left-radical Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), the move could turn out to be a prelude to a more difficult phase of cohabitation politics.
Behind all these posturing, what merits attention is the dispute over presidential powers. The President's argument is that the clause "whenever he considers such consultation to be necessary" in Article 44 is "subjective", and the decision is within her discretionary powers. Cabinet spokesman and Constitutional Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris opines that it "imports an objective requirement" and that "such consultation is absolutely necessary" in a situation of cohabitation politics.
In further support of his argument, Peiris noted that the Supreme Court of India had once held that consultation means not only "asking, but acting in accordance" with the view given and to be guided by that advice.
Given the present situation, the issue could either snowball into a constitutional dispute or be blown aside by a larger, perhaps more emotional and serious, crisis in the weeks ahead. Sri Lanka's summer of discontent, clearly, has started on all fronts.