Wed, 18 Oct 2000

Kumaratunga wins fresh complications

NEW DELHI: If preliminary results are confirmed, the People's Alliance, with 109 seats, should have no difficulty in forming the next government in Sri Lanka.

Even though its allies, the National Unity Alliance and the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP), have less than the sixteen seats they won last time, any one of them joining a PA government would give it the single-seat majority it held in the last House.

Significantly, President Kumaratunga's Tamil opponents have done better this time, with the Tamil United Liberation Front winning seven and the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO) four, to the obvious detriment of the pro-government EPDP.

This indicates a certain erosion of support in the Tamil North and the East due to the abrupt withdrawal of the constitutional reform bill in August this year, even though the Tamil parties benefiting from it were not exactly enthusiastic supporters of devolution.

The United National Party has ostensibly come down to 90, from 94, while the People's Liberation Front (JVP) makes its mark in Parliament again with 10 seats. The UNP fought the elections on its own and none of the parties outside the PA ambit have memories of it nice enough to want to join hands.

Has this been a fruitful exercise for President Kumaratunga? If the idea was to get an overwhelming mandate for the devolution package, which would give Tamils in the North and the East their provincial councils with substantial autonomy, no.

But, if the idea was to minimize the risk of alienating the Sinhala Buddhist majority too much and lose the thin advantage in Parliament altogether, then yes.

The draft constitution bill was withdrawn in August in the face of stiff and potentially violent, opposition from the Buddhist clergy, immediately after which Kumaratunga appointed Ratnasiri Wickramanayake, said to be a Sinhala hardliner, as prime minister.

Wickramanayake met the powerful monks of the Malwatte and Asgiriya chapters and said that each and every clause and provision of the draft would have to be approved by them. This certainly lost Kumaratunga more Tamil votes, but possibly rescued her government.

Wickramanayake's appointment complicates matters a great deal as far as the devolution scheme is concerned. In August, Kumaratunga said she would convert the newly elected Parliament into a constituent assembly, get the draft passed by a simple majority and then put it before the people for a referendum.

This can be done. The UNP has done similar things in the past, using its brute majority to bring in the executive presidency in 1978, and holding a referendum in 1982 to extend the life of the parliament by six years.

Now, Wickramanayake says that the old draft is dead and a new draft will have to be prepared, probably in accordance with the wishes of the clergy. That may take time. You can't have a constituent assembly that waits patiently for the document to show up.

Besides which, the old draft was prepared after extensive consultation with the Tamil parties who, understandably, might not like the ideas the monks have on the subject. It's one or the other.

-- The Statesman / Asia News Network