Politics - The Nation' News
Buoyant Ranil poised to strike in November
Has the main opposition, the United National Party, woken up to reality? This is the question being posed by many, in the aftermath of the remarks that were made by Colombo District UNP Leader Ravi Karunanayake last week. At a press briefing on Tuesday, Karunanayake announced the UNP’s desire to stick to the unitary nature of the Constitution when devolving power to the strife ridden northern and eastern provinces of the country.
Earlier, the UNP notwithstanding the ideas expressed by various other political entities such as the JVP and the JHU, advocated federalism as a solution for the country’s ethnic conflict. Surprisingly, however, the UNP has now thought it fit to go along with the thinking of what appears to be that of the majority, following the military successes achieved by the UPFA government recently, which had the backing and the blessings of a larger segment of the majority community.
UNP’s latest stance
Though Karunanayake made it more or less official, the UNP’s latest stance was first made public by Moneragala District UNP Parliamentarian Ranjit Madduma Bandara at a TV talk show telecast two weeks ago. In fact, Athuraliye Rathana Thero who represented the JHU, asked for clarification from Madduma Bandara when he announced that the UNP stands for a unitary constitution.
The UNP’s latest stand could be construed as a significant departure from its original position. The UNP, which was in power for a short stint from 2002 to 2004, was part and parcel of an agreement signed between the government and the LTTE, whereby it advocated federalism as the solution to the ethnic question. The agreement spelt out that the government in power (the UNP) and the LTTE agreed on a federal solution to the ethnic crisis which plagued the country.
Under the auspices of the Norwegian facilitators, the UNP government entered into the Oslo Declaration in December 2002, whereby the LTTE too committed itself to a federal solution. The declaration was attested by Minister G.L. Peiris on behalf of the Sri Lankan Government and LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham on behalf of the LTTE. The statement issued by the Norwegian Government on the occasion stated thus: “Responding to a proposal by the leadership of the LTTE, the parties agreed to explore a solution founded on the principle of internal self-determination in areas of historical habitation of the Tamil speaking peoples based on a federal structure within a united Sri Lanka. The parties acknowledged that the solution has to be acceptable to all communities.”
Having attested the agreement, the LTTE demanded something which went beyond the federal structure to facilitate an interim administration through the Interim Self-Governing Administration (ISGA) proposal, which could be described as a step towards separatism.
At the November 2005 presidential election, people saw a paradigm shift in the LTTE’s stand when the self-proclaimed sole representatives of the Tamils in the north east and elsewhere in the country imposed a boycott on the election, which gave an edge to UPFA candidate Mahinda Rajapaksa over UNP candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe.
The general perception among the people was that if the LTTE favoured a federal solution and was yearning for peace in the country, it would not have resorted to such action, which defeated the very idea conceived in Oslo in 2005.
The 2005 presidential election campaign saw more communal sentiments being expressed by the UPFA, while the JVP, obsessed with nationalism, embarked on a virulent campaign against the UNP candidate. The JVP’s verbal abuse and unfounded allegations against the UNP also helped to fan communal emotions among the general public, which propelled Mahinda Rajapaksa to the helm of politics in the country.
Mangala Samaraweera and company, who advocated federalism under the guidance of former President Chandrika Kumaratunga and a seasoned campaigner of the ‘Sudu Nelum’ programme by which they propagated a just solution for the ethnic crisis, also went along with the JVP for mere political advantage. The end result was disastrous for the moderate Tamils, by which the country was dragged into a senseless war.
The UNP’s latest position would have sent shock waves through moderate Tamils who had faith in it as a party which cares for all, including the minorities. It could alienate the moderate Tamils from the UNP, which could have severe implications for the party in the long run. It would certainly leave the UNP with no option but to turn towards the LTTE or a proxy of the LTTE which would make a fresh political bid in the south, mainly in the Colombo District to rally the support of the Colombo-based Tamils who hitherto voted with the UNP, come what may. However, others say that the UNP would be the best option for them, being the best out of the worse.
The UNP’s latest thinking is that this may be the only way forward for the party, given that a President who believes in communal politics is in power. As to whether the UNP is making a mistake by the shifting of its policy is yet to be seen, though political commentators are forecasting a dismal future for the party as far as minority support is concerned. However, this could be a mere political exercise by the UNP to test the waters and see how it would fair with the Sri Lankan electorate if it shifts its stance on the character of the country’s Constitution.
As it stands today, it appears that the UNP is trying to overcome a certain short-term problem politically. Some think that the present shift would help the party to solicit the support of the JVP, which had reached breaking point with the government over a number of issues. JVP Leader Somawansa Amarasinghe recently announced that the JVP does not have a personality problem with the UNP and that it was opposed to the UNP only due to its policy, which was obsessed with federalism and its international network, which works against the interests of the country.
The UNP is now poised to discuss this matter at length in a meeting with the party’s apex Working Committee and Political Affairs Committee, which is likely to include the latest amendment to the party’s policy framework after deliberations. Senior UNPers were taken aback for a while when they first heard of the party’s new policy shift, since they did not perceive the motives behind the move. However, party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe had reportedly told some of his close associates that the UNP did not advocate federalism as a policy at any stage and invited the people to read the presidential election manifesto of 2005, to get a hang of the UNP’s thinking on devolution of power while others think that politics is always a game of hoodwinking the people. It is their fervent opinion that the present shift is more temporary than permanent, until the UNP rides back to power, after which it would turn back to its original policy of advocating federalism as a policy to solve the present crisis.
What’s in a name?
The reactions of the Political Affairs Committee and the Working Committee over the UNP’s latest major policy shift are yet to be seen. It would most likely sail through the two policy-making bodies of the party without much heartburn for Wickremesinghe since most of the members in the Working Committee are ready to accommodate the point of view expressed by the leader.
UNP National Organiser S.B. Dissanayake is of the opinion that whether it is unitary or united, the UNP is committed to extensive devolution to resolve the ethnic crisis. In his view, the name makes no difference since it has a good example to cite in the Indonesian Aceh Province. He states that the party at no stage emphatically stated that it would only support a federal solution.
The thinking of the more affluent class in the UNP is that all these are mere political exercises to throw a veil over the masses to focus their attention on something else since the party is not quite ready to overthrow the government at the next Budget in November.
The sentiment expressed by a senior UNPer was, that it is very unlikely the UNP would try to do so now. He was of the opinion that the time was not right and the conditions were not conducive for such a move.
Nevertheless, the UNP is still toying with the idea of overthrowing the government at the second reading of the Budget and if the numbers are right, the opposition would ask for a division in Parliament. However, it appears that the government is mindful of the fact and is vigilant about the UNP’s political manoeuvering, which would otherwise take the government by surprise.
It is learnt that at present the UNP is having a dialogue with the JVP, but the JVP is in a dilemma and does not want to show the country that it is in truck with the UNP in the exercise of toppling the government.
The JVP is yet to take a decision as to whether it would vote with the Budget or not but the very likely scenario is that it would not, since most of the measures taken by the government during the recent past have been termed by the JVP as measures that go against the well-being of the people.
Besides, the UNP is in the process of adjusting itself to suit the conditions put forward by the JVP, and create an environment conducive for it to allow the UNP to come back to power. The Wickremesinghe administration in the UNP is ever-ready to do whatever the JVP wants in its pursuit of power.
The UNP, which imposed a ban on its members with regard to mentioning deadlines for overthrowing the government, is working stealthily towards achieving its goals. Wickremesinghe is buoyant these days and his attitude has instilled confidence in the people who are close to him. His aim is to make a joint effort by soliciting assistance from everybody possible to topple the government. The question is whether the government is ready to face the showdown in November.
In fact, President Mahinda Rajapaksa challenged the UNP to topple the government, if possible, at the next Budget. Though the President did issue a challenge to the UNP, he too was not sure as to what would happen at the Budget.
Against this backdrop, having Basil Rajapaksa in Parliament is an additional advantage for the President. Basil Rajapaksa would definitely put his heart and soul into salvaging the waning image of the government and try to keep the government members intact to face any eventuality in Parliament.
Although the government has mismanaged the economy and brought more misery to the poor over the past two years owing to many factors, some of which were beyond its control, the work undertaken and completed in the east is somewhat commendable. After having liberated the east from the clutches of the LTTE, the government embarked upon massive development projects to win the hearts and minds of the people of the east.
On top all this, it is also exploring the possibility of fully implementing the 13th Amendment to the Constitution to create separate provincial councils for the north and the east. The northern council will operate under a special Advisory Council appointed by the President until such time that elections are held for the north. The Advisory Council will be empowered to function as the board of ministers and all the powers specified in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution are likely to be discharged through the so-appointed Advisory Council.
In the east, the government is envisaging holding elections and restoring democratic norms for the people to choose their own elected representatives.
The hitch at present is the presence of armed groups headed by Karuna Amman operating without any hindrance. This is the major problem faced by the people of the east, and it also threatens democratic principles being implemented there. However, the government’s plan to bring forth a good deal for the people who have undergone immense suffering due to the separatist war in the east have been successful so far, with the Muslim community being given its share to get effectively involved in the process.
In general terms, the country is facing a catastrophic condition economically and otherwise with the oil prices skyrocketing in the world market. The projected loss of the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) for the year 2008 is estimated at a staggering Rs. 48 billion, which would drastically increase soon enough since world oil prices are expected to reach the US$ 100 mark per barrel very soon.
Given these circumstances, economists are predicting a dismal future for the county under any government in power if Sri Lanka doesn’t push for a negotiated settlement to the ethnic problem and increase its productivity, while creating an environment conducive to foreign investments.