February 9, 2004
Chandrika, ordering snap polls was an agonising decision
By PK Balachanddran
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
tie up with JVP
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
The JVP, which was also
looking for alliances to propel it to the seats of power, responded
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
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.
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