For Chandrika, ordering snap polls was an agonising decision

By PK Balachanddran
Published February 9th 2004 in Hindustan Times

The decision to dissolve Sri Lankan parliament, just two years after it was elected, must have been one of the most agonising political decisions that President Chandrika Kumaratunga has taken so far. It is clear that her heart was not in it. And if she did finally send the 225-member House packing on February 7, it was due to compelling circumstances and forces beyond her control.

The House had been elected only in December 2001. The United National Front (UNF), led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, enjoyed majority support. The Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) with the Tamil separatist outfit, the LTTE, had been holding for two years despite hiccups.

The international community would have liked the peace talks to have resumed, but it was happy that war had not broken out. Though the international donors were withholding the US$ 4.5 billion which they had pledged earlier, the economy's macro indices were looking good. The GDP had registered a 5.6% growth and tourist arrivals had burgeoned.

Yes, the "peace dividend" had accrued mainly to the minuscule ruling class, who were going on a car buying spree, jetting around the world for no good reason, and setting up glittering shopping malls to cater to their fancies. Peace's economic dividends were bypassing the vast majority living in the urban slums and the rural areas because the government had launched no development projects which could spawn jobs and trading opportunities for the common man.

And yet, the common man was glad that the guns were silent and that no suicide bombers were lurking in their midst. For the majority of the 19 million people of the island, the "peace dividend" was "peace" itself.

They were still hopeful that in due course, their lot would improve too.The "honeymoon" between the Ranil Wickremesinghe regime and the people had not ended.

If, in spite of all this, President Kumaratunga was driven to dissolving parliament and ordering fresh elections, four years ahead of schedule, and at an estimated cost of SLRs 850 million ($ 8.7 million), it was because of the unseemly struggle for power in the ruling class, the tug of war between the President Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe.

Power struggle in the ruling elite

The December 2001 parliamentary elections created a situation which called for "cohabitation" between a popularly elected Executive President belonging one party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), and a Prime Minister enjoying majority support in parliament belonging to the United National Party (UNP). The constitution also called for cohabitation because it was a Presidential system with parliamentary features.

But cohabitation was a problem right from the word go. Though they were childhood playmates, Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe intensely distrusted each other as politicians. Peeved by the grave accusations and tongue lashings he received from the President, when he was Leader of the Opposition, Wickremesinghe had no hesitation in scuttling her pet scheme, a new constitution designed the solve the Tamil question.

And to the President's chagrin, he did that at the eleventh hour.

When he was swept to power in December 2001, Wickremesinghe wanted to pursue the peace process and hold talks with the LTTE completely by-passing the President. He wanted to overlook the fact that, as per the constitution, she was the Head of Government and the cabinet and the de-facto Commander in Chief of the armed forces, besides being the Head of State.

The Prime Minister's argument was that he had come to office on the peace plank and that he had the peoples' mandate to pursue peace without let or hindrance from the President who had favoured another approach to the issue of peace and war. He was trying to super-impose a parliamentary system of government on a Presidential form of government.

President's constitutional role not recognised

With the result, the President was not consulted on the Ceasefire Agreement that Wickremesinghe had entered into with the LTTE. The CFA was given to her as a fait accompli. She was coming to know of key governmental decisions through the press. At cabinet meetings, a ginger group of ministers used to level serious personal charges against her, while the Prime Minister was a mute spectator.

This was one of the reasons why she kept off cabinet meetings. She too began to exercise her powers without taking the Prime Minister into confidence. And this was resisted, as when the police prevented the Government Printer from printing one of her gazette notifications.

The Wickremesinghe government was also trying various means to curb her powers as the head of the armed forces. Laws to curb these were drafted, though each time they did something like this, the judiciary would nullify it on the grounds that the President's powers over defense were constitutionally entrenched.

Meanwhile, the President got ample opportunities to pick holes in the peace process being conducted by the Prime Minister. She felt that the CFA catered more to the needs of the LTTE than to the Sri Lankan state.

She charged that the LTTE was being allowed a free run of the Tamil North East while the government forces were being shackled. She suspected that the Norwegian peace facilitators and the Scandinavian-staffed ceasefire monitoring mission were mollycoddling the LTTE, while endangering the sovereignty security and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. The North Eastern coastline had become so porous that the LTTE was smuggling in arms freely.

She dubbed the "International Security Net" being woven by Wickremesinghe as a hoax.The LTTE had walked out of the peace talks in April last year, had boycotted the Tokyo Aid Lanka talks, and had scuttled all the government-sponsored development agencies in areas under its control. But the international community could do little to bring the LTTE back on track.

President gets tough

After a series if incidents which cast doubts on the impartiality of the Scandinavian ceasefire monitors, the President invoked her constitutional powers to demand that the Norwegian government recall the controversial chief monitor, Maj Gen Tryggve Tellefsen. There were also clashes with the Prime Minister over control over the armed forces. Being her appointees, the service chiefs had begun to take orders from her rather than the Defense Minister nominated by the Prime Minister.

Kumaratunga made a decisive stroke in the "battle for defence" on November 4 last year, when she took over the Defense, Interior and Media ministries from the UNF.

Stung by this coup, staged when he was in Washington, the Prime Minister declared that he would not continue with the peace process and the peace talks. He said that he could not manage the peace process without control over the armed forces. He said the President had endangered peace. The international community, comprising the US, EU, Norway and Japan, echoed this fear. The international community, barring India, failed to be even-handed, on this issue, partly because it was not aware of the constitutional provisions. It also did not think that cohabitation required that the Prime Minister too accommodate the President, who was a constitutional center of power in her own right.

Cohabitation talks

Given the international demand for cohabitation, the President and the Prime Minister appointed two of their top officials (Mano Tittawela and Malik Samarawickreme respectively) to work out cohabitational arrangements. Since the President particularly, was under fire internationally, she on her own also, came up with several schemes to share power over defence.

Among the schemes she came up with was one which was in existence when the UNP was in power earlier. While the President kept the Defense Ministry under him, the actual task of fighting the LTTE was given to a Minister of National Security, or a Deputy Defense Minister, who was a powerful member of the cabinet. Under President JR Jayewardene, the powerful Lalith Athulathmudali was the National Security Minister. Under President R Premadasa, the war was conducted by Deputy Defense Minister Ranjan Wijeratne. In both cases, the Defense Ministry as such was under the President.

But despite the fact that governments run by his own party had such arrangements, Wickremesinghe kept spurning the suggestion for three months. He wanted all or nothing. He wanted the President to take over the peace process and even renegotiate the ceasefire agreement. But the President refused on the grounds that she had no mandate to do that. There was a deadlock. To add to the problem, no country would undertake to bring the two warring constitutional entities together for Sri Lanka's good.

Opportunistic tie up with JVP

Meanwhile, frustrated with the happenings on this front, the President and her party the SLFP, began to have political discussions with the untra-Leftist/Sinhala majority-oriented Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). The JVP was seen as an up and coming anti-UNP political force in the Sinhala heartland in South and Central Sri Lanka. According to election pundits, if the SLFP and JVP join, the UNP is likely to get a drubbing.

The JVP, which was also looking for alliances to propel it to the seats of power, responded favourably.

Both the SLFP and the JVP were suspicious about the role of the West in the crisis in Sri Lanka and saw it as pro-Tamil separatist and therefore a threat to the country.

But this was not the President's preferred option. Nor was it the preferred option of many of the senior leaders of the SLFP. This was because the JVP was extremist. It had a violent past, having attempted a putsch in 1971 and an armed insurrection in 1988. It is accused of killing the President's husband Vijaya Kumaratunga, among thousands of others in the late eighties. It was feared that an alliance with the JVP might also alienate the West and international donors because it was Marxist, anti-West and anti-globalisation.

The SLFP was wary of this because it was a moderate, left-of-centre party. The other problem was that the JVP was no believer in the devolution of power to units based on ethnicity and so was opposed to the SLFP's plan to devolve power to the Tamil North East.

Given the divergence of views with the JVP, all that Kumaratunga wanted to do was to use the SLFP-JVP alliance as a bogey to frighten the UNP into agreeing to her compromise formula for cohabitation.

At one stage she was hoping for a split in the UNP so that she could form a government with the splinter group and dispense with the JVP.

But the continued intransigence of the Prime Minister and the ginger group in the UNP which was egging him on, made the SFP-JVP forge a formal electoral link called the United Peoples' Freedom Front (UPFA) and plan to go to the people for a decisive verdict. Mid-term elections for the parliament began to be talked about.

UNP panics

When this happened, the UNP panicked. The Prime Minister called his ginger group to order. The UNP began to talk of a settlement being imminent. But seeing the panic in the UNP camp, the proponents of the SLFP-JVP alliance concluded that they should strike when the iron was hot. They began to push the President towards a dissolution of parliament and the calling of snap elections.

But it was hard to convince the President. The questions badgering her were: What if the alliance comes a cropper at the polls or manages only a slender majority given the proportional representation system? What if the West and the Western lending institutions close the financial tap? Where is the money to fight an election when the business community is solidly behind the UNP? Will not the JVP dominate the SLFP and humiliate it, as it did in 2001, when there was a tie up to tide over a period when the SLFP-led government's strength in parliament had dwindled dangerously?

In an effort to thwart the dissolution of parliament and possible loss of power, Wickremesinghe sent word to the President that he was willing to let her keep the Defense Ministry in return for a powerful Ministry of National Security in charge of defense matters related to the peace process and the ceasefire.

But this had come too late. The President was by then facing the possibility of a revolt in her own power hungry party. Key leaders of the party told her that if she did not agree to order snap polls now, they would not work for her in any future election. The JVP threatened to walk out of the alliance.

The argument of the JVP and the SLFP ginger group was that if the parliamentary polls were not held now, the UNP would consolidate itself. This will be certainty if, as expected, the SLFP did badly in the provincial councils elections because of the anti-incumbency factor. It is this "now or never" line which forced the President's hand finally.

(PK Balachanddran is the Sri Lankan correspondent of Hindustan Times)