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Kumaratunga's search for a new role

Her future is uncertain because her exit will coincide with a radical change in her party, writes PK Balachandran.

india Updated: Oct 31, 2005 23:18 IST

Due to demit office in November this year, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga is now engaged in rearguard action to maintain her relevance in the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the politics of Sri Lanka. Her future is uncertain because her exit will be coinciding with a radical change in the character of her party.

Willy-nilly she has passed on the baton to the new hope of the party, the new messiah, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the present Prime Minister and the SLFP's candidate for the Sri Lankan Presidential election to be held on November 17.

If Rajapaksa, with his trade mark Sinhala Buddhist homegrown image and his alliances with radical Sinhala nationalists, wins the election, Kumaratunga stands in danger of being sidelined.

If she is unable to fit in under the new dispensation, she may fight back or look to other avenues, which, given the fact that she is a political animal, a world renowned figure and only 60 year old, cannot but be political and high profile.

There is speculation here as to what Kumaratunga will do. Given her less than cordial relations with Rajapaksa, it is accepted that she is not going to be a vigorous campaigner in the election, nor is she going to be an ardent supporter after that. Will she attempt to split the SLFP ? Will she tie up with the UNP responding to an invitation already given by the latter? Will she seek a high profile international role in an UN agency, capitalising on her high standing in the world? Or, will she become stateswoman steering Sri Lankan politicians and the government towards her cherished goals of peace, ethnic understanding, human rights, and enacting a democratic and federal constitution to solve the Tamil question once for all?

Kumaratunga cannot be unaware of the fact that the SLFP has virtually slipped out of her hands, and the hands of her family, the Bandaranaikes, who founded it and led it since its inception in the mid 1950s.

Despite her best efforts to restrain it, the party has rallied round Rajapaksa, and not herself, or her choice for the Presidency - younger brother Anura Bandaranaike. Given his small town, non-aristocratic background, in contrast to the aristocratic, urbane and Westernised Bandaranaikes, Rajapaksa is set to give the SLFP's leadership a new colour and character.

For Kumaratunga, giving in to the change had become imperative because of a constitutional bar against standing for a third term as President, and because of the non-availability of any other Bandaranaike to carry the torch and keep the party within the founding family. While Anura Bandaranaike seemed to have little or no support in the party, Kumaratunga's son and daughter were still apolitical.

Ploys to remain in power

However, Kumaratunga had indulged in several ingenious ploys to extend her tenancy at the top of the country. Undoubtedly, she did have a genuine interest in changing the Presidential constitution to a Westminster style parliamentary one to give Sri Lanka a more democratic set up. But Kumaratunga had plans to use the change to prolong her own power. The existing constitution did not allow her more than two terms, and the Prime Ministership had no power under it. She wanted a change over to the parliamentary system because the most powerful office there was the Prime Ministership. And under the Westminster system there was no bar on the number of times one could be elected Prime Minister.

Attesting to her genuine desire for a more democratic system was the fact that her efforts to change the constitution began soon after she became President for the first time in 1994. It had been an election promise too. She went on a vigorous public denunciation of the dictatorial Presidency and set up a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) to draft a new parliamentary constitution.

But the main opposition party, the United National Party (UNP), was totally against any change, partly because it was the UNP which brought about the Presidential system, and partly because the incumbent leader of the party, Ranil Wickremesinghe, believed that a strong and independent Presidency was a must to develop sluggish Sri Lanka.

The UNP took part in PSC's meetings alright, but when it came to actually enacting the change, it backtracked. Kumaratunga's bid to get the measure through parliament in August 2000 failed.

Significantly, one of the main reasons why the UNP opposed the draft and burnt copies of it on the floor of the House, was a clause which said that the incumbent President (Kumaratunga) would serve her full six year second term as Executive President despite the change over to a parliamentary system. The UNP cried foul.

In 1999, Kumaratunga had called for a snap Presidential election, which she won, primarily due to a massive sympathy wave triggered by an attempt on her life by a LTTE suicide bomber at her last election rally in Colombo. She was sworn-in immediately after the victory.

But apparently, sometime in 2000 she realised that she would be losing an year in office if the day on which she took her oaths in December 1999, was deemed to be the day on which her second six-year term began. According to her critics, she then took her oaths "secretly" again in 2000, at the end of six years counted from 1994. This was to start the count for the second term from 2000 onwards and end the term in 2006 and not 2005. The UNP and the independent media were livid.

Kumaratunga's supporters argued that as per the constitution, the President's second term would begin at the end of the first six-year term, the mid-term poll and the oath taken after that, being irrelevant. Indeed, to be fair to her, there was scope for such an interpretation of the constitution because the drafting of the relevant clause was clumsy.

Kumaratunga won the 2000 parliamentary elections. But within a year, her Peoples' Alliance (PA) government was facing problems and becoming unpopular. The war against the LTTE (War for Peace as Kumaratunga described it), had been going badly for the Sri Lankan armed forces. Operation Jayasikuru (Victory Assured) to open a land route to Jaffna through the LTTE's heartland in the Wanni, had ended disastrously.

In 2000 the LTTE was on the outskirts of Jaffna in their Operation Unceasing Wave III. In July 2001, the LTTE attacked Sri Lanka's only international airport and the biggest Air Force base at Katunayake. The hike in shipping insurance hit Colombo harbour and ruined the international trade-based economy of the country. Sri Lanka registered negative growth.

Key ministers including the constitutional affairs minister, GL Peries, defected to the UNP. The PA government, of which the SLFP was the leader, had to depend on the conditional support of the Marxist and Sinhala nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).

In the snap parliamentary election of December 2001, PA was defeated and the UNP-led United National Front (UNF) came to power. But Kumaratunga stayed on as Executive President, as per the constitution.

The defeat notwithstanding, Kumaratunga vociferously disapproved of the peace initiatives of the UNF government led by Ranil Wickremesinghe, especially the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) and the MOU signed by his government and the LTTE in February 2002. Very significantly, she completely forgot about ridding the country of the monstrously powerful Executive Presidency and fully utilised its powers to scuttle the Wickremesinghe government's peace initiatives, which she described as a sell out to the Tamil terrorists and separatists.

In 2003, Kumaratunga took over the Defence, Interior and Information ministries "in the interest of safeguarding the country's sovereignty and territorial integrity." She later carried out her threat to sack the Wickremesinghe government and dissolve parliament.

Meanwhile, the SLFP under her, had established an understanding with the JVP, which in time became an electoral alliance. In the snap parliamentary elections of April 2004, the SLFP-led United Peoples' Freedom Alliance (UPFA), which included the JVP, won. Her nationalist rhetoric had struck a chord among the Sinhala-Buddhist majority in the country.

First Published: Oct 04, 2005 12:26 IST