Former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga failed, despite all the backroom strategies, to ensure Mahinda Rajapaksa did not become the fifth President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.
This time she was more determined to deny him another Presidency - that of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). She chose to confer that title on Prime Minister, Ratnasiri Wickremanayake. Thereafter, she boarded an Etihad Airways flight to Abu Dhabi. After a near two-hour stay there, she boarded another flight from the same airline to London. Since ending her eleven-year tenure as President of Sri Lanka, Ms Kumaratunga was spending more time in the United Kingdom than in Sri Lanka.
It was only some three weeks ago that she returned from Britain and plunged into political activity. She took control of the party headquarters and handpicked candidates for the March 30 local government polls. President Rajapaksa`s aides complained that neither he nor other senior members of the party were consulted. The crunch, as revealed last week, came when Mr. Rajapaksa chose to address over 3,000 candidates contesting the local polls at the Sugathadasa Stadium. In a strongly worded letter to the SLFP General Secretary Maithripala Sirisena, she berated him for sending her a `couple of lines.` inviting her for the event. `As a leader who respects party discipline and policies, I cannot accept your invitation,` she wrote.
Hardly a week ended before senior stalwarts of the SLFP met to discuss the matter. It was noted that Ms. Kumaratunga, was unaware that the Sugthadasa Stadium event was not an exclusive one for the SLFP. It had been organised by the United Peoples` Freedom Alliance (UPFA) where she had no role. She had resigned the UPFA leadership and held no office in what has come to be known as the Sandanaya. They decided to back Mr. Sirisena and he took up an equally strong stand. One would have thought the matter ended there. It did not. It has now caused greater embarrassment for Ms. Kumaratunga.
Before her latest trip to London, she telephoned Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickramanayake and told him she wanted to make him the acting president of the SLFP. A long time political confidant of Ms Kumaratunga, Mr. Wickramanayake felt uncomfortable. `Madam, please give it to anyone and go. Don`t create problems,` said Mr. Wickramanayake. He was surprised when a letter arrived nevertheless from Ms. Kumaratunga naming him as the acting president of the party.
To spite the President she had involved the Prime Minister. The move could have driven a wedge between the President and the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister blushed with embarrassment, but there was a tinge of annoyance as well.
It is in this backdrop that the Central Committee of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) met at its headquarters at Darley Road, Colombo on Thursday. The embarrassed Premier Wickramanayake simply expressed his inability to attend. Fortunately for him, he had a function to attend, being the chief guest at an event at the Bellanwila Raja Maha Vihare. The chief incumbent Ven. Bellanwila Wimalaratne Thera, the scholar monk, was marking his 50th year in monkhood.
As a result, those who gathered for the CC meeting had a problem on hand. Who would preside now that Ms Kumaratunga`s nominee as acting president was not available?
A chorus of voices exhorted it should be the President of the Republic, Mahinda Rajapaksa. He was present there wearing a blue shirt, one that symbolises his party. Mr. Rajapaksa raised issue over how Ms Kumaratunga could name another member as acting president thus contravening the constitution of the SLFP. He pointed out that she could only nominate a person, but such nomination would have to be endorsed by the Central Committee. Hence the move was illegal, he argued. There were proposals that Mr. Rajapaksa himself be named acting president, but Mr. Rajapaksa was not willing to accept the title under the circumstances. Turning the offer down, he told a CC member he did not want to be seen as someone greedy to get into Ms Kumaratunga`s slippers, the last remaining pair in politics after she ended her presidential career.
Then, Mr Rajapaksa surprised all present by proposing the name of octogenarian Dharmadasa Wanniaratchchi, a veteran SLFPer as the acting president of the SLFP. He is the father of Pavithra Wanniaratchchi, Minister (non Cabinet rank) for Samurdhi and Poverty Alleviation.
Mr Wanniaratchchi, a one time Gam Mulaadaaniya (Village Headman), later became a Grama Sevaka the precursor to that office. He was such a die-hard SLFPer that he was interdicted from office for engaging in politics, but was later reinstated. From 1970 to 1977 he was Deputy Minister of Industries. In 2004 he became a Vice President of the SLFP, and in 2004, Governor of the North Western Province.
Thus, Dharmadasa Wanniaratchchi, at 84, created history. He became the first politician from Sabaragamuwa to be endorsed by his party as the acting president of the SLFP. Another jealously guarded domain, an exclusive preserve of the Bandaranaikes, was thrown open to a commoner. His appointment was unanimously endorsed by the Central Committee. If the CC meeting showed there was none among those present willing to stand by Ms Kumaratunga`s choice, it also made clear that if he was serious, the SLFP Presidency would be Mr. Rajapaksa`s if he staked a claim. Some political analysts say that Mr. Rajapaksa may have been just testing the waters to check the mood of the party. Even if that was the case, there seemed to be no doubts remaining. The waters were crystal clear.
There were more shocks to come at the CC meeting. SLFP General Secretary Maithripala Sirisena declared that Ms Kumaratunga`s letter naming a party member to act as President was illegal and outside the party`s constitution. He asserted that the former President had not made clear under what provision of the SLFP constitution she bestowed leadership to another member when there was explicit provision that a leader could only nominate, not appoint. Any nomination must be endorsed by the Central Committee. Mr. Sirisena drove the point further. He wanted those present at the CC meeting to say whether Ms Kumaratunga`s measures were correct.
Had she violated the party constitution? If so, he wanted them to declare it so. There was no dissent. All members of the Central Committee unanimously endorsed that the SLFP constitution was violated by Ms. Kumaratunga. All hands were raised to agree that the rightful course of action for the party to take was to endorse the appointment of an acting President.
Even Ms. Kumaratunga`s own brother, Tourism Minister Anura Bandaranaike seemed unhappy over his sister`s continued sabre-rattling with President Rajapaksa. This week, during a private chat he told her there was no point in fighting with Mr. Rajapaksa. `He cannot run the country,` she shot back. The remarks seemed to make clear Ms. Kumaratunga was still sulking, unable to come to grips with reality. Brother Anura said `we do not have to stand in the way.`
Mr. Bandaranaike`s discomfiture over Ms. Kumaratunga`s continued insurgency against President Rajapaksa surfaced somewhat unexpectedly. That was during a conversation he had with Mr. Rajapaksa.
Mr. Bandaranaike`s private secretary had written to Lalith Weeratunga, the President`s Secretary seeking clearance to travel abroad. This time Mr.Bandaranaike wanted to travel to London en route to Berlin for the International Travel Bourse (ITB), or the world tourism fair.
President Rajapaksa had imposed a travel ban on all his ministers on account of the upcoming local government elections. Hence, Mr. Bandaranaike`s request was turned down. A worried and disappointed Tourism Minister telephoned President Rajapaksa. The two one time buddies who called each other by their first names stuck to the best of protocol. `Your Excellency,` declared Mr. Bandaranaike as he made an appeal to Mr. Rajapaksa to re-consider his request.
He explained the importance of his official engagements and the benefits that would accrue to the country. `Well, then you can go,` declared the President. He took the opportunity to tell Mr. Bandaranaike that his sister, the former President, was not allowing him to do his job. `Yes, I told her to put a stop to this,` he replied. That one-liner assured Mr. Bandaranaike his ticket to Berlin, and re-assured the President that even Ms. Kumaratunga`s brother was now seeing the writing on the wall - that Podi akka was just being plain obstructionist to the new order.
President Rajapaksa also met a delegation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) proxy, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) later this week. On the opposite page our Defence Correspondent provides details of the issues they discussed vis-à-vis the LTTE.
The TNA delegation also raised issue over the appointment of Professor Ratnajeevan Hoole as the new Chancellor of the Jaffna University. The appointment was made early this week by President Rajapaksa. He replaces Prof. S. Mohanathas whose term is due to end this month.
The TNA delegation took up the position that the LTTE was not happy over Prof. Hoole`s appointment. President Rajapaksa said he had been appointed as Vice Chancellor because he had all the qualifications. Therefore, he should be given an opportunity to do a job of work.
Signs that President Rajapaksa will face a formidable challenge from the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) on issues before the Government-LTTE talks next month in Geneva, emerged this week.
First was the strong statement in Parliament by JVP parliamentary group leader Wimal Weerawansa. He protested over a Sunday weekly English newspaper publishing details of an LTTE report on `paramilitary` groups. He then made a bitter attack on Norway and demanded that the Government asks them to withdraw as peace facilitators. (See opposite page for the fall-out of this attack).
The day after Mr. Weerawansa`s attack on the Norwegians, the politburo of the JVP met to discuss the issue. The decision - to take whatever action deemed necessary if President Rajapaksa does not take measures to change the Government`s stance at the upcoming talks - no doubt turns into a strong ultimatum of sorts. The JVP holds the view that the Ceasefire Agreement of February 2002 is illegal and unconstitutional, and it insists that it has not diverted from that line. Hence, it expects the Government to make clear at the next round of talks in Geneva that the CFA, at least in its present form, is not acceptable. Neither President Rajapaksa, nor his Government is inclined to do that due to the enormous international embarrassment it would cause. Whether that would signal the parting of the ways for the JVP and even the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) remains a strong possibility, and a matter of interest no doubt for political watchers.
As for the JVP, its leaders feel there will be more strength to their thrust after the outcome of the March 30 local government polls. This, they say, is when the party secures control of some key local bodies. They can talk from a position of strength, they feel. On the other hand, President Rajapaksa will be thinking on similar lines. With the opposition United National Party (UNP) in virtual tatters, and more stalwarts bent on crossing over, he will also find himself strengthened, except for one factor. There is a strong possibility that the JVP-PA vote will get split, and the UNP becomes the unlikely beneficiary of it.
Already, the Muslim Congress, contrary to claims by some of its own middle rung leaders, has wrapped up a deal to support President Rajapaksa in his peace efforts with the LTTE. So next month`s April holiday season will also be studded with many significant political events and developments worth watching.