Changing equations

Print edition : December 19, 2003

Chandrika Kumaratunga's proposal for a joint Peace Council eases the strain in the President's relationship with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. But her efforts for an alliance with the hardline JVP will have far-reaching implications for the island-nation's polity.

in Colombo

SRI LANKA'S politics, which is in a state of flux, seems set for a re-alignment of forces. With President Chandrika Kumaratunga holding the key Defence portfolio, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe disclaiming responsibility for the peace process and the Norwegian peace facilitators putting the process on hold, the immediate focus is on the possibilities of a political re-alignment in the South.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

The seemingly conciliatory posture struck by the ruling United National Front (UNF) in the immediate aftermath of the Presidential moves of November 4 (Frontline, December 5, 2003) has taken the institutional form of a joint committee of officials, which has been asked to chalk out ways in which the President and the Prime Minister can work together on important national issues.

A thaw appears to have set in in the icy relationship between the two historically opposed political parties - the President's Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the Prime Minister's United National Party (UNP). In late November, Kumaratunga proposed the formation of a Joint Peace Council (JPC) to be co-chaired by her and Wickremesinghe to "oversee and manage" the peace process. For resumption of negotiations, Kumaratunga proposed that Colombo's present team restart "initial peace talks" and that a National Peace Negotiating Delegation be constituted to hold "main talks" with the LTTE. The "overall framework under which the government's proposals are to be submitted to the LTTE, along with the negotiating guidelines", are to be "cleared by the JPC before formal negotiations begin". In the seven-page proposal to Wickremesinghe, the President also suggested the creation of the post of a "Minister assisting Defence" - to be nominated by the Prime Minister - who can "work cordially with the President". Kumaratunga made it clear that she "will be in charge" of the Defence portfolio and, through the Defence Secretary, "will provide the necessary support, facilities and all other required assistance to the JPC and its constituent units in the furtherance of the peace process".

The proposed JPC will be assisted by an Advisory Council on Peace (ACP) comprising representatives of all political parties, the clergy, professional and other national groups, and "various technical committees to examine various aspects of the peace process".

The proposals say that the "Prime Minister will be in charge of the peace negotiations" and "would from time to time and when requested by the JPC, keep it informed of the progress" and "take guidance" from it on "matters of policy". The Minister assisting Defence would also co-ordinate between the President and the Prime Minister "on all matters common between the peace process and related security issues".

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.-ZAINAL ABD HALIM/REUTERS

Norway would be "invited to resume their work" as facilitator and "asked to make arrangements to resume peace talks with the LTTE". While the present working arrangements with the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) "will continue", a detailed terms of reference and guidelines would be formulated "for the smooth operation". The President also proposed that a Muslim delegation "will respond" to the LTTE's counter-proposals, which will be made available to her by the Prime Minister.

The present negotiating team would "resume one or two rounds of peace talks starting January 2004 to agree on logistics and the way forward". After the initial talks, "Sinhala and other religious professional groups will visit the north and east and meet up with the LTTE". For the "main peace talks", a National Peace Negotiating Delegation "will be formed in consultation with and approval of the JPC".

The release of the proposals by the President's Office has reportedly sparked a fresh row, with the UNP reportedly expressing its displeasure over the "breach of confidence".

This softening of positions takes place against the backdrop of months-long negotiations between the SLFP and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) for an electoral pact. Efforts to work out an alliance have been on since early this year. Domestic political compulsions and the island-nation's electoral system are behind these moves.

The JVP and the SLFP first came together during the short-lived parliamentary experiment before the 2001 general elections. The JVP extended support to Kumaratunga's People's Alliance (P.A.) "probationary government" on a broad understanding on issues relating to the economy. The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) withdrew support to the SLFP-led P.A. government leading to the dissolution of Parliament. The UNP won the December 2001 general election and formed a government.

The latest effort for an electoral pact between the SLFP and the JVP is seen as an attempt to consolidate their vote banks. The JVP, with 16 MPs, came third in the last parliamentary elections. The UNF has a total of 114 seats, the P.A. 77, the Tamil National Alliance 15, the Eelam People's Democratic Party 2 and the People's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam 1. The UNP polled 45.62 per cent, the P.A. 37.19 per cent and the JVP 9.10 per cent.

SLFP leaders supporting an alliance with the JVP point out that with their combined electoral strength, the UNP could be routed. In all Sinhala-majority electorates, the JVP had finished third in the 2001 elections.

Under Sri Lanka's proportional representation system, political parties win seats in Parliament on the basis of percentage of votes polled in an electoral district. Also, under the bonus seat system, the party with a majority vote in an electoral district is given an additional seat for that district. Seats are also won through the national list, which is based on the votes polled across the island.

The argument in favour of an SLFP-JVP alliance is that a consolidation of their votes would result in the combine winning more bonus seats in non-Tamil majority districts.

External Relations Commissioner of the European Union Chris Patten (left) with LTTE supremo V. Prabakaran (right) and LTTE political wing leader S.P. Tamilchelvan in Kilinochchi on November 26.-LTTE/ HO/REUTERS

Electoral imperatives apart, at the conceptual level, fundamental differences persist between the P.A. and the JVP on the most important national issue - the resolution of the ethnic conflict.

The most significant impact that Kumaratunga has had on Sri Lankan politics, particularly the P.A. and the SLFP, is that the popular mindset changed from war to peace. Her move to change the Sri Lankan state from the unitary model by a greater devolution of powers has not yet been implemented, but the change in mindset is evident. Given the fact that there has been no constitutional change to this effect, the concept of devolution itself would be endangered by a pact between the P.A. and the JVP.

The latter strongly feels that a dilution of the unitary system would mean separation. It is also not in favour of negotiations as a means to achieve peace; it would rather endorse a military solution.

If the need arises, hardline elements across the political spectrum, including those within the two main parties, could come together.

It is, therefore, at the conceptual level that a major shakeout is likely to take place in the event of an electoral pact between the SLFP and the JVP.

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