Moving into election mode

Print edition : February 27, 2004

Sri Lanka moves from a phase of political uncertainty to that of an electoral one as the President dissolves Parliament, and the LTTE is watching the situation to see how best it can derive long-term advantage from the political imbroglio.

in Colombo

ON February 7, one phase of political uncertainty ended in Sri Lanka but another began. In a fast-paced but expected move, President Chandrika Kumaratunga dissolved the island nation's 225-member Parliament and paved the way for fresh elections, to be held on April 2. The people of Sri Lanka will now be called upon to exercise their franchise for the third time in four years. Nominations for elections will be accepted between February 17 and 24 and the new Parliament is to meet on April 22.

Ranil Wickremesinghe being sworn in Prime Minister by President Chandrika Kumaratunga on December 9, 2001, in Colombo.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

At the stroke of midnight, curtains were drawn on a phase of bitter cohabitation struggle between the constitutionally powerful Executive President and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. After the dissolution, Wickremesinghe was asked to continue as caretaker Prime Minister and two Ministers were added to the Cabinet. Former Foreign Affairs Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar was named the Minister for Information and Telecommunication and D.M. Jayaratne was made the Minister for Post and Communication. The possibility of these two Ministers, both from Chandrika Kumaratunga's Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), being given additional responsibilities cannot be ruled out.

The ruling United National Front (UNF) reacted sharply to the dissolution. It charged the President with being "unpredictable". It asserted that it was "ready to face any election" and that it would seek a mandate to carry forward its policies. The peace process and the revival of the economy, the party said, would be its main campaign points.

The life of the fifth Parliament under Sri Lanka's 1978 Constitution was plagued by struggles between the two seats of power. Both leaders, heading parties that have opposed each other bitterly for nearly five decades, were plunged into a cohabitation government in December 2001 when Wickremesinghe won the parliamentary elections. Kumaratunga was elected the Executive President for a second six-year term in December 1999.

The cohabitation struggle saw moves by the UNF to curb the President's powers to dissolve Parliament. In its initial days, Parliament tried to "chip away" at the powers of the Executive President, a move that Kumaratunga resisted fiercely and the Supreme Court shot down as unconstitutional. Under the Constitution, the President can dissolve Parliament after it completes one year. That deadline passed on December 5, 2002, and since then uncertainty prevailed.

On August 20, 2002, in a bid to assuage tempers, the President wrote to the Speaker that she would not dissolve Parliament "unless the party which presently commands the majority of the House loses its majority and an alternative government cannot be formed". She said a dissolution would have "unexpected and unforeseeable effects on the peace process and jeopardise its beneficial results at a time when the thoughts of all political parties should be focussed on the question of prime national importance, that of bringing the ethnic conflict in our country to a close in a peaceful manner with a just and a durable solution which satisfies the aspirations of all our people in our multi-ethnic, multi-religious society".

On the need to avoid early elections, Kumaratunga said in the letter: "Above all, the people of our country need a respite from the hurly-burly of national elections" as there had been a presidential election and two general elections in under three years. "In a parliamentary system of government," Kumaratunga said, "a dissolution of Parliament before the expiry of its stipulated period usually takes place when the government of the day loses its majority and faces defeat on the floor of the House on a no-confidence motion or on an important financial bill such as the budget, and it is found to be impossible to constitute a new government from among the members of the existing Parliament. Today the Prime Minister and the Cabinet appointed after the general elections held on 5th December 2001 appear to enjoy a working majority in Parliament."

What changed the situation between August 2001 and February 2003 so drastically as to necessitate the dissolution of Parliament? Asked about the presidential letter to the Speaker, one of her spokesmen said that "the situation has changed now" and that the attempts at cohabitation "have collapsed".

Left unsaid is the tragic tale of a festering rivalry between the United National Party (UNP) and the SLFP, the two main parties of Sri Lanka. Ever since the SLFP was founded in 1956 by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike after he left the UNP, power has changed from one party to the other in a nearly equally divided polity. Decades of hard positions on the separatist conflict underwent a drastic change in 1994, when Kumaratunga proposed devolution of powers to the Tamil-majority regions. But a peace process that she started was short-lived, resulting in an escalation of war. As the `war for peace' was being unleashed in all its fury in the north, the Kumaratunga administration took steps to involve external facilitation and resumption of talks through Norway. The December 2001 general elections were preceded by a string of military defeats for the then government, culminating in an attack by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on the Katunayake international airport in Colombo, which is also the main airbase of the military. A war-weary nation voted in Wickremesinghe's UNF, which sought a mandate for peace and talks with the Tigers.

A ceasefire agreement was entered into on February 22, 2002, and the LTTE was accepted by the UNF as the sole representatives of Tamils to hold talks with. The Tigers were de-proscribed and six rounds of talks were held with Norwegian facilitation, but matters were running out of control. One of the main factors that kept the talks with the Tigers going - internationalisation of the conflict - was also turning to be its sore point. If the Prime Minister's frequent mention of an "international safety net" and the entry of big players - Japan and the U.S. - were cause for discontent, the LTTE's demand for the de-mobilisation of troops in the northern Jaffna peninsula and its exclusion from a preparatory seminar in Washington effectively ended this phase of negotiations.

Protesting against the "excessive internationalisation" of the conflict-resolution process and the administration's refusal to pull out troops from the high security zones in the Jaffna peninsula, the LTTE walked out of the talks in April 2003. It demanded a politico-administrative interim structure for the Northeast and rejected the administration's offer of a development-oriented body. The LTTE stayed away from the peace process and made its intention clear when it boycotted the international donors' conference hosted by Japan. On October 31, it put forward a proposal for an "interim self-governing authority for the Northeast", seeking a majority stake for itself, with plenary powers.

A cautious Wickremesinghe administration admitted to serious differences with the LTTE, but said these could be negotiated. The SLFP initially described the LTTE's demands as having the potential to lay the foundation for a separate state. Subsequently, however, the party said that they could serve as a basis for negotiations. Meanwhile, the facilitator, Norway, put the peace process officially on hold and said it would return when "political clarity" was established in the south. It has remained in contact with the main parties.

THE latest and sharpest round of cohabitation struggle started on November 4 when Kumaratunga constitutionally took over the Ministries of Defence, Interior and Mass Communications. Wickremesinghe then abdicated responsibility for the peace process by saying that he would not be able to conduct it without authority. His Cabinet dismissed as "inadequate" the President's offer of a Joint Peace Council. The dissolution was preceded by calls by the President for a broad national consensus. In addition, since Kumaratunga's takeover of the three Ministries, a team of officials had been working on the ways in which the two leaders could work together.

The LTTE, which described the political standoff as an "absurd drama", has adopted a `wait and watch' approach and has said that it would talk to anyone who "had a mandate" and "recognised the aspirations of the Tamils".

Lakshman Kadirgamar, the new Minister for Information and Telecommunication.-SENA VIDANAGAMA/AFP

On January 20, the SLFP joined hands with the Left-nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) to form the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and said it would contest elections together. The UPFA sought recognition from the Election Commission and was granted the butterfly symbol, UPFA sources said. The UNF described this as "the most opportunistic alliance in the world" and said it would result in the "degeneration of the SLFP".

The UNF has 114 members in the 225-member Parliament. The People's Alliance, headed by Kumaratunga, in which the SLFP is the main constituent, has 77 members and the JVP 16. An alliance of Tamil parties, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), has 15 members. The two other Tamil parties that have MPs are the Eelam People's Democratic Party (two) and the People's Liberation Organisation for Tamil Eelam (one). The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and the Ceylon Workers Congress are the other major parties that are part of the UNF in the dissolved Parliament.

The Wickremesinghe administration's handling of the peace process and the issue of cost of living are likely to emerge as the main campaign points in the elections. Public reaction to the dissolution has been muted. The actual dissolution came on the back of weeks of speculation about it and the possible date. Working from the legal requirement that an election should be held within eight weeks of dissolution, it was predicted to come in the first week of February.

February 4 is the island's national day and is followed by a religious holiday. So the first weekend of February was speculated as the most probable time for the President to announce the decision. Hence when Kumaratunga dissolved Parliament on February 7 and set the course for another round of elections it was not a surprise.

It is not clear which of the two parties will emerge victorious. The UNF is not as comfortable as it was, say, a month ago. The consolidation of the SLFP-JVP alliance runs the risk of hitting an emotionally charged, hardline election campaign, particularly in the south.

However, whichever party wins, Sri Lanka's Proportionate Representation system would mean that the majority will be slender. Irrespective of the electoral outcome, the two main parties cannot escape the fact that they will have to work together. The constitutional supremacy of the Executive Presidency and the need for a two-thirds majority in Parliament to effect any change of statute to solve the separatist conflict will require the two parties to do so.

As Sri Lanka moves from a phase of political uncertainty to that of an electoral one, the LTTE, which is still to renounce either violence or separatism, is maintaining a tactical silence and watching the unfolding political situation with a fixed glare on how it could convert the political imbroglio to its own long-term advantage.

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