Survival stakes

Print edition : September 15, 2001

Faced with a no-confidence motion in Parliament, Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga strikes a one-year deal with the JVP to keep alive her People's Alliance government. But it may be only a matter of time before she dissolves Parliament and calls fresh elections.

ONCE upon a time, not very long ago, a ruler in the island of Sri Lanka took the remarkably bold step of unilaterally proposing changes to the country's Constitution in order to end the Tamil separatist conflict that had, over two decades, claimed thousands of lives, displaced millions of people and brought nothing but ruin to what was once considered paradise. The obstacles in her path were great, but she promised to surmount each one of them to bring in the changes to the Constitution. There would be no more compromising on the island's most important problem. After being repeated over and over again, the fairytale had already begun to drag somewhat, especially as it showed no signs of coming true. It finally ended on September 5 when the ruler, President Chandrika Kumaratunga, closed a deal with the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) in order to gain support to her minority People's Alliance (P.A.) government. In exchange, she agreed to freeze all constitutional reforms that had to do with devolution, for the one year that the pact is to last.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga. The pact with the JVP gives her breathing space until the one-year time bar on the dissolution of Parliament ends on October 10 this year.-GOVERNMENT INFORMATION SERVICE/AP

It can be argued in Kumaratunga's defence that one year is, in any case, too short a period to bring about constitutional changes, particularly as the government is now keen to invite the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) for peace talks. Besides, it gives the President that much more time to build a consensus around what are bound to be controversial changes.

Defenders of the pact - and they include most members of the P.A. - argue that the resolution of the ethnic conflict is still "the most important priority" for the government. This one year will help it set in place mechanisms to resolve the conflict, they say.

But the question is not whether Kumar-atunga could have constitutionally devolved power to the minorities in the coming year. Most probably not. What came as a shock was the readiness with which she agreed to shelve the matter, just to help her government survive its minority status for a year.

The JVP led two insurrections against the Sri Lankan state in which hundreds of thousands of people were killed (60,000 according to one estimate), and Chand-rika Kumaratunga has said the party was behind the February 1988 killing of her husband, Vijaya Kumaratunga, a popular film star-turned politician. It has an ideology that is mistakenly described as Marxist, but borders more on nationalist socialism. All that did not seem to matter as the two sides signed a 'memorandum of understanding', a pact of survival for the P.A., with the JVP as the remote control for the government.

Survival, to the exclusion of everything else, has been the key word for the government since June this year, when Kumaratunga sacked Rauff Hakeem, the leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, a crucial coalition partner. He retaliated by walking out of the P.A. with the six other MPs of his party, reducing the government to a minority in Parliament. Sensing the opportunity, the United National Party (UNP), pushed a no-confidence motion against the government. Loath to put her coalition to a test of strength in Parliament, Kumaratunga prorogued the House for the maximum permissible period of two months, until September 7, and also scheduled a referendum on a new Constitution for August 21.

The decisions sparked massive street protests, and the Opposition parties seemed to be finally gaining the momentum they had sorely lacked all these years. The UNP, joined by all other Opposition parties, including the JVP, demanded that the President reconvene Parliament and call off the referendum.

Adding to Kumaratunga's mounting list of woes was the LTTE attack on the Bandaranaike airport in July, which showed up the total ineptness of the government and its security apparatus. When insurance companies jacked up rates for planes and ships touching Sri Lanka, freight ships stopped calling at Colombo port. There was panic and it seemed as if Sri Lanka's export-import driven economy was heading for a collapse. But in two weeks the government managed to persuade international underwriters to bring down the rates.

The looming economic crisis only served to highlight the shenanigans of the politicians, and the cries for peace by the two main antagonists, the P.A. and the UNP, grew louder. Some politicians called for a national government, others for a government of national reconciliation, and still others for a government of consensus. In essence, what everyone wanted was an arrangement that would enable the UNP and the P.A. to wield power together so that the confrontation could end, and the business of government, which had reached a state of paralysis, could be cranked up again.

UNP leader Ranil Wickremasinghe. "We have no intention of giving oxygen to the dying P.A. government," he said.-GEMUNU AMARASINGHE/AP

As the date for reconvening Parliament drew closer, with the no-confidence motion pending before it, for the P.A. too it seemed worthwhile to explore the possibility of allying with the UNP in order to remain in power. Stalwarts of the P.A. had been in touch with senior members of the UNP ever since the crisis for the government began, but the purpose of these contacts appeared to be to woo them to the government's side by offering inducements rather than to reach an agreement with the UNP.

There was even a controversial 'secret' meeting between Kumaratunga and the Leader of the Opposition, Ranil Wickremasinghe, which apparently ended without result. According to the P.A. version of the meeting, leaked to the state-run media, which 'broke' the story, Wickremasinghe promised to join the government along with a large section of UNP parliamentarians if he was given the post of Prime Minister.

The report created a storm within the UNP, as it was meant to. Wickremasinghe denied that he had offered to do any such thing, and said all that he had done was to propose a national government in which all parties would participate, or at least agree to support from the outside.

Having burnt its fingers and having been convinced that the P.A. was trying to break it up, the UNP set up a three-member committee of senior members, and announced that only this committee was authorised to deal with overtures from the P.A. The party was, of course, marching to its own internal dynamics. Earlier this year, Wickremasinghe's leadership was under threat from those who felt he was not doing enough to topple a government that had after all been put together with the help of disparate parties. For them, the crisis in the P.A. was a godsend and they did not want to make any move that would bail out the arch rivals, and that included doing a power-sharing deal.

Meanwhile, other groups within the party, particularly those representing the interests of big business, were apprehensive that the P.A. may tie up with the JVP. The JVP is anti-economic reform and anti-privatisation, and when the President opened a line to the JVP, it gave many, including those in the international community, the shivers.

After meetings between the President and the Indian and the U.S. envoys, and with Ashley Wills, the latter acting as a go-between, the P.A. and the UNP finally decided to open talks towards an agreement to share power.

It was almost like a bilateral meeting between two countries, with the leaders of both sides nominating a panel each of delegates to represent them at the three-day talks on August 25, 27 and 28. The venue was the impressive Bandaranaike Memorial Hall, with a five-star hotel catering to growling stomachs.

The P.A. was represented by an impressive array of Cabinet members: Minister of Agriculture D.M. Jayaratne, Minister of Posts and Telecom Nimal Sripala de Silva, Minister of Urban Development Mangala Samaraweera, Minister of Foreign Affairs Lakshman Kadirgamar, Minister of Power and Energy Anuruddha Ratwatte and Minister of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Mahinda Rajapakse.

JVP propaganda secretary Wimal Weerawansa (left) explains the Memorandum of Understanding with the P.A. government at a press conference in Colombo on September 4.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

On the UNP side were the party chairman Karu Jayasuriya, deputy chairman Charita Ratwatte, senior parliamentarian Tyronne Fernando and the party's legal eagle, Khorshed N. Choksy.

While the 'moderate' group within the UNP had propelled the party towards the negotiating table, some others in the party saw in the no-confidence motion the UNP's first chance in seven years to oust the P.A., and they would be damned if they were going to gift it away. If the government did not have the courage to face the motion, they said, it should resign and make way for a UNP-led caretaker government that would remain in office until general elections, which could be called between October and December. "We have no intention of giving oxygen to the dying P.A. government," said Wickremasinghe at a public meeting two days before the talks began.

As was expected, the talks failed. The UNP said power-sharing with the P.A. was possible only if Wickremasinghe, as the Prime Minister, was given executive powers. This would have given the UNP control over the Cabinet and the Ministries, which is now vested in the hands of the Executive President. The P.A. ruled out the President transferring her executive powers to the Prime Minister. For its part, the UNP spiked the P.A.'s proposal to create the post of executive vice-president to accommodate the incumbent Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickramanayake.

With the collapse of the talks with the UNP, the P.A. reopened its talks with the JVP. By the first week of September, determined to outmanoeuvre the UNP, the P.A. tied up with the JVP; the outside support of its 10 MPs would help the government overcome any threat to it in Parliament.

The MoU signed between the two sides is a laundry list of all the JVP conditions that the government has agreed to meet, with deadlines for each of them: slash the Cabinet's size to 20 from 40 by September 12; legislation by September 24 on setting up independent commissions for the police, the public service, the judiciary, and elections; an independent commission on the media in six months; write off loans to farmers by September 30, and so on.

While existing monetary arrangements with multilateral agencies and other donors, and trade agreements can go ahead, the government has given an undertaking that it will not enter into any new agreements 'detrimental' to the country, and not embark on privatisation of state enterprises.

In a compromise on its main platform since Kumaratunga came to power, the P.A. agreed "not to bring in during the one year this memorandum of understanding is in force, proposals for devolution of power, or any other proposals that may lead to a controversy, until such time that a broad consensus is arrived at through a wide-ranging dialogue with the participation of all segments of society".

The JVP has said it will not oppose talks with the LTTE during this one-year period if the LTTE renounces its demand for a separate state. The party is dead set against Norwegian facilitation of the peace talks. Together the two conditions virtually mean no talks. While these conditions are not included in the MoU, they represent the JVP's position, and were reiterated by its general secretary, Tilvin Silva, at a press conference before the pact was signed.

The P.A.'s spin-meisters tried to put the gloss on the issue, and said they would not be bound by what was not in the MoU and that the government was free to invite the LTTE for talks. As if to drive home the point, the P.A. appealed to the UNP to join hands with it to invite the LTTE for talks, with Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar declaring that if there was no response from the UNP, the government would seriously consider putting out the invitation on its own.

What is more, the government is also prepared to offer the LTTE "a mutually agreed temporary halt to offensive military operations". It is also ready to concede another precondition that the LTTE wants met before talks, namely steps to alleviate hardships to civilians in the conflict areas. In other words, lifting the restrictions on food, medicines and other essential commodities.

Of course, the invitation, when it is issued, will be rejected by the LTTE. The LTTE has said it is not prepared to talk to an unstable government. It might be even more unwilling to talk to a government stabilised by the JVP, that is, if the JVP will permit peace talks in the first place.

For the P.A., the deal with the JVP has enabled its survival for a year, but it has done nothing for its credibility, especially on the ethnic question. Nor has it ended the political uncertainty in Sri Lanka.

Notwithstanding the P.A.-JVP alliance, the UNP is still determined to bring in a no-confidence motion, claiming that a considerable number of government members are ready to back it. The party is pinning its hopes on the open warfare between Kumaratunga and several of her senior colleagues, including Constitutional Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris, Poverty Alleviation Minister S.B. Dissanayake, Airports Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle and Environment Minister Mahinda Wijesekera.

It is also doubtful whether the pact will survive the one-year period. While the JVP expects the President to dissolve Parliament and call fresh parliamentary elections under a caretaker government at the end of this period, the marriage of convenience may last only until it is convenient to Kumaratunga.

That is, until she can shepherd her government across the one-year time bar on the dissolution of Parliament, which is October 10 this year. After that date, Kumaratunga is free to dissolve Parliament and call fresh elections at any time convenient to her. Many say it could be as early as January next year.

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