UPFA's politics of duplicity

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Sunday, May 15th, 2005

Suranimala Logo

With internal contradictions within the UPFA bringing the ship of state to a standstill, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse in a show of resignation last week called upon President Chandrika Kumaratunga to hand over the administration to Opposition Leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe while the donor community was planning its own set of ultimatums given the confusion in government.

That Kumaratunga's is a government in gridlock is plain to see with the JVP calling the shots and despite all the bravado, the President is having to eat humble pie at every turn.

No tough cookie

For some time now, the President has managed to impress upon both the international as well as the local communities, she was a tough cookie ready to face the challenges ahead come what may, notwithstanding opposition from the JVP, be it in relation to the peace process or economic reforms.

This she succeeded in doing by making in-your-face statements on the twin issues going so far as to call upon the JVP to quit government if it so desired without confining itself to idle threats.

Rather than taking up the challenge, the JVP turned tables on Kumaratunga by calling her to quit if she so wished on the premise, it is the JVP that was given a mandate at the April 2004 general election.

Thus, whilst staying in government, the Marxists blocked every move Kumaratunga made towards economic reforms as well as a resumption of a dialogue with the LTTE and it began slowly but surely to dawn on the international community whose largesse the government was looking for to salvage the economy that the President did not really have what it takes to rise above the fray in the national interest.

But Kumaratunga continued to confound her critics and sceptics by once again coming out strongly against the JVP in the build up to the donor conference, going so far as to brief the diplomatic community on her intention of signing the joint mechanism agreement with the LTTE, even as the JVP launched its agitation campaign making it clear the deal can only be sealed at the expense of the alliance.

That Kumaratunga meant business this time was driven home more forcefully with the cabinet of ministers proceeding to approve the CEB restructuring programme despite a walk out by the four JVP ministers with the threat of bringing the government to its knees.

It is after the JVP backed unions followed the walkout with threats of plunging the country into darkness that Kumaratunga succumbed yet again, pleading with Prime Minister Rajapakse to settle the dispute and in the process sending out signals she was putty in the hands of the Marxists.

And settle it Rajapakse did by once again putting the CEB restructuring on hold even as the President continued to lament the government was losing Rs. 40 million every day the restructuring plan was delayed.

On a razor's edge

Reduced to such a pitiful state, Kumaratunga's pledge to proceed with a joint mechanism began to ring hollow and it became all the more evident, Tuesday, May 10, when she briefed the foreign diplomats on the issue.

In fact, Kumaratunga knows she is now on a razor's edge given the failures of the government with both Japan and the ADB, which were to fund the restructuring programme of the CEB stating in no uncertain terms that if the reforms are not approved before end June, their funding would be withdrawn.

And the reforms according to the two donors should meet their approval and be on the basis of forming nine companies as per the electricity board reform legislation approved some time back, the very basis the JVP is opposing.

Therefore, Kumaratunga can either kiss goodbye to the funding come June or do likewise to the JVP and there will be no rewards for guessing which option she will choose given the fact her own political survival hinges on the JVP.

It is for the same reasons, the donors are now talking among themselves the President will conveniently forget that proceeding with the joint mechanism after the donor conference next week, hoping her public commitment to it will be sufficient for obtaining pledges of financial assistance.

But the donors by and large are of the view the proof of the pudding is in the eating and unless Kumaratunga comes good on the joint mechanism as well as on the economic reforms, the monies pledged will be just that - pledges.

And this point was driven home to the President when she briefed the diplomatic community, Tuesday, May 10, on the joint mechanism at which briefing she appealed for two weeks time to convince the JVP to accept it.

Ironically, while the President was seeking two weeks time to convince the JVP on the joint mechanism, the Marxists were breathing fire at the Town Hall that any such agreement with the LTTE will see the end of the UPFA.

Alive to this situation, one diplomat pointedly asked the President what the result would be if she failed to persuade the JVP and her reply said a mouthful.

Joint mechanism

No brave words of proceeding with the joint mechanism come what may came out of Kumaratunga. She simply said, "The situation then would be very delicate," and to the diplomats, that was a clear indication there will be no joint mechanism without the JVP's approval.

And this thinking was freely shared by diplomats the very evening at a dinner hosted by the IMF Country Representative, Louis Valdeviso following the preparatory meeting for the donor conference with the Finance Ministry earlier in the day.

It was at the afternoon meeting that the draft agenda for the development forum was distributed, where too the donors were of the view the government had been careful to prepare it in a way best suited for itself though not necessarily to get the maximum benefit for the country.

The donors in particular expressed disappointment on the closing session programme titled 'Partnership In Development And Peace,' where only 30 minutes had been allocated for a general discussion.

The donors had said that with so many view points and concerns to be expressed on the subject, 30 minutes was hardly adequate and that it appeared the government was planning to keep a lid on it fearing strictures being passed.

But the fact remains, unless the government comes up with credible responses to the nagging questions of the donors with regard to the joint mechanism as well as the economic reforms, the entire exercise would be one of futility with the anticipated funds not likely to be forthcoming.

Moreso given the LTTE's own position made public on the eve of the aid consortium that President Kumaratunga was only paying lip service to a joint mechanism with the intention of hoodwinking the donors, a charge the government will find hard to change given the delaying tactics adopted in the face of JVP opposition.

The LTTE's charge becomes all the more potent when it has declared readiness to sign the joint mechanism agreement even on the eve of the aid consortium on the terms agreed to by the two parties through Norwegian facilitation.

Kumaratunga however has said she is not yet quite ready to take the plunge.

But more serious is the LTTE threat that its patience is fast running out and any further delays would compel the organisation to take a fresh look at the entire peace process including the ceasefire agreement.

Simply put, the LTTE was not prepared to allow the government to rake in the dollars on the strength of the tsunami devastation without having a proper mechanism in place to handle the reconstruction in the north east.

Complicating the issue further was the President's failure to convince the Muslim Peace Secretariat headed by SLMC Leader, Rauf Hakeem and NUA Leader, Minister Ferial Ashraff to go along with the joint mechanism on the strength of her assurance the Muslim interests would be looked after.

Ironically, though the Muslim Peace Secretariat was to nominate the Muslim representative for the three member joint mechanism committee, the President even declined to give a copy of the proposal for their study when requested by Hakeem at their meeting.

Instead, the President said she would send relevant excerpts for their perusal at a later date much to the embarrassment of Ferial Ashraff who is a cabinet minister.

Convincing the JVP

Be that as it may, President Kumaratunga's preoccupation was with convincing the JVP to accept the proposal, and discussions towards this end proved unsuccessful, hence her message to the donors she needs at least two more weeks to persuade the Marxists.

Her failure to persuade the JVP also resulted in the postponement of the planned visit to India, hoping against hope she can convince the Marxists before travelling to New Delhi to get the blessings of Mother India for the joint mechanism.

The President was of course keen to enter into a joint mechanism with the LTTE, thereby assuring a steady flow of funds but not at the risk of losing the JVP and with it the government.

It is for this reason, Kumaratunga once gain attempted to convince the Marxists last week albeit with little success given the JVP's own dilemma having taken high ground on the joint mechanism with threats to quit the alliance.

The meeting called by the President on Friday, May 6, was expected to be a stormy affair but given the mild tone adopted by the JVP on the joint mechanism though not conceding the issue ensured there were no major upheavals.

It will be recalled, JVP Leader, Somawansa Amarasinghe had over the last eight months made repeated requests for a meeting with Kumaratunga to no avail and this time round when invited, it was Amarasinghe's turn to play hard to get.

Accordingly, the JVP team for the meeting comprised, Agriculture Minister Anura Kumara Dissanayake, General Secretary, Tilvin Silva and Propaganda Secretary, Wimal Weerawansa. The SLFP team led by the President included, Prime Minister Rajapakse Ministers Mangala Samaraweera, Susil Premajayanth, Nimal Siripala de Silva, Anura Bandaranaike and Deputy Ministers Lasantha Alagiyawanna and Dilan Perera.

The meeting started with the President briefing the members present on the joint mechanism proposals and explained the limitations of the powers vested in it including on fiscal management.

What the President did was paint a picture of the joint mechanism as a toothless tiger hoping it will soften the JVP's stance and she partially succeeded in her endeavour with Tilvin Silva claiming the party was not opposed to the concept in principle.

Said Silva - "We are not opposed to this mechanism. We are only against the way it is being done. If we had been consulted beforehand, this could have been done without any problems arising."

Wimal takes a swipe

Making a slight diversion at this point was Weerawansa who used the opportunity to take a swipe at Deputy Ports Minister, Dilan Perera who is not only at odds with Minister Samaraweera but has today become Kumaratunga's point man against the JVP.

"Madam President," said Weerawansa, "The reason these problems keep aggravating is because of some stupid statements some brainless government ministers are making under the guise of the Deputy Ministers Forum. They say with or without us, what has to be done will be done. These are unfair statements to make. But what's the use? They are not used to thinking before they speak and when decisions have to be subsequently put on hold it weakens the entire government."

Perera however in a show of political maturity chose not to confront Weerawansa allowing the Marxists to vent their anger on him rather than the President if the end result was going to be a compromise on the joint mechanism, given Tilvin Silva's initial comments.

And after Weerawansa gave vent to his frustrations over the Deputy Ministers Forum, Silva made another proposal aimed at reaching a compromise on the joint mechanism. He said if the government targeted the entire country for such a mechanism rather than confining it to the north east, the JVP would support it.

"Oh, so now the JVP is also with us on this. We thought you were opposed to it all this time," chipped in Anura Bandaranaike, possibly seeing a silver lining to the otherwise dark cloud followings Silva's comments only to be glared at by the President, which saw her brother promptly putting a zip on his lip.

Speaking rather sternly, President Kumaratunga pointed out that rather than organising rallies and protests against the setting up of the joint mechanism if the JVP merely told her what their concerns were, she would do what she could to accommodate them. Instead, they were trying to derail the process, she said.

But Silva was quick to reply - "That's the thing Madam. You also have a wrong impression about us. We also misunderstood you. The whole problem was that you did not ask us for a set of recommendations. If that had happened, we would also have supported the mechanism wholeheartedly. Anyway, make a small change in this proposal and then we can also support it."

JVP trap

President Kumaratunga then asked Silva what amendment he wanted made and in his reply lay the trap that would ensure the joint mechanism would not see the light of day.

Said Silva, "Now see, the TNA is the LTTE's political stooge. They make no bones about it, it is an open secret. The whole country knows this. But they are legislators in our parliament. Our problem is that there are LTTE representatives on the joint mechanism committees. Let's get rid of that clause and say representatives will be TNA parliamentarians instead. Then the mechanism gets a new face and we can support it as well."

But the President was no spring chicken when it came to playing politics and shot down Silva's proposal. "You said yourself that the TNA is nothing but the political hand of the LTTE and the entire country knows it. So then there is no difference whether the LTTE representatives themselves sit on the committees or TNA MPs sit on them. There is absolutely no use in making such an amendment," reasoned the President.

But Weerawansa echoed Silva's call for the amendment to be made nevertheless. The JVP contention was that if the proposals were revised then the party could join in the effort to soften the peoples's stance on the joint mechanism as well without having to lose face for going back on the threat to quit over the mechanism.

The discussion ended on a positive note with the JVP throwing a rope at the President that it would support her no matter what. A decision was also made to hold further talks next week. The JVP hoped thereby that if Kumaratunga took the bait, the JVP would emerge victorious in the joint mechanism battle as it did over the CEB restructuring, thus appearing as the real force in government in the eyes of the people.

In that backdrop the JVP members left the meeting believing President Kumaratunga had been convinced but no sooner Weerawansa and Co. had departed, the President sat for a long time talking things over with her ministers. It was then that the really emotional and heated discussion took place.

As soon as the JVP members left the meeting room, the President had one word to say - "nonsense!" she scoffed at their retreating backs. Then raising her hand at the door through which the JVP members had just left, she stormed, "Can we do the things that they are suggesting? What on earth is this? Don't they have any common sense? I of course didn't go to argue too much since they were being polite. Finally they had no counter proposals to recommend. They just talk for the sake of it. Do you think the LTTE is going to agree to their suggestions?"

CBK determined

The President then said resolutely that she had no choice but to go ahead and sign the joint mechanism agreement. "There is nothing I can do. I will have to go ahead. We cannot continue in government like this. If these fellows quit the government, I will join hands with the UNP. We can do this with them. Let anything happen," she said, knowing fully well her sentiments would be conveyed to the JVP, hoping thereby they would in panic compromise.

The President's statement understandably had the ministers in shock. Even Premier Rajapakse was stunned. It was he who finally spoke up. "We can't do that. If the JVP leaves the government, we become a minority in parliament. And besides, the people voted for us to govern hand in hand with the JVP not the UNP. If the JVP leaves the government, let's go and sit in the opposition. I have no problems about giving up the premiership. I am ready to go and sit in the opposition. Madam, you can then speak to Ranil and ask him to form a government," said Rajapakse.

The Prime Minister went on to advise the President further: "I have something else to tell you also Madam. I have heard that some of your advisors have told you that the time is ripe to dissolve parliament and call an election. But the people who come from the villages are always criticising the state of the country. The cost of living is very high. The people are totally against an election at this point. If an election is held under these conditions, none of us will be able to step out on the streets: we will be stoned. If according to parliamentary procedure we have no majority, we should allow the party with the majority to go ahead and form a government."

Having listened to Rajapakse with a deadpan expression, the President finally said "I can do that. But remember one thing. The moment Ranil becomes prime minister, I will resign from the presidency. I have no problems with giving all this up at all."

Taken aback by this statement, a stunned Samaraweera pleaded for sanity stating in such an eventuality, Wickremesinghe would automatically become the President.

Shot back Kumaratunga, "So what do I lose? I have been President for over 10 years now."

Leaning over to whisper into the ear of one of his ministerial colleagues at this point was Bandaranaike. "It looks like Mahinda has struck a deal with Ranil to hand the government over," he said.

Mangala's reassurance

But reassuring the President was Samaraweera. Said he, "Don't worry Madam, I know what the JVP is saying and doing. Even if you sign the joint mechanism agreement the JVP won't quit."

But the President was not about to take chances with the sands of time fast running out for her politically and advised Samaraweera to get the JVP's approval for the joint mechanism.

That is the only way to prevent the fall of the government and ensure there is no snap election, the President warned. (For more political intrigue see Pot Shots on page 12)

All this politicking, in the final analysis, is neither here nor there with the donors determined to go by action taken by the government on the crucial issues of peace and economic reforms rather than mere words and that is where the government may well come acropper.

The donors too may in such circumstances confine their pledges this week to mere words until such time Kumaratunga matches her words with action and time is what Sri Lanka is fast running out of.