Midweek Review
Referendum of the president

by Nalin de Silva
The president Ms. Kumaratunga and her close associates have to decide soon without wasting public money whether they would go ahead with the referendum. Though many organisations and political parties had requested the government to call off the referendum it is very clear that even on this question the government was having second thoughts. The president announced a referendum ostensibly to find out whether the country needs a new constitution even without consulting the minister of constitutional affairs. She had apparently discussed the matter with a few cabinet ministers and did not bother to inform the cabinet of ministers before releasing the news to the media. It is her referendum and not that of the government and she has to be held responsible for all the consequences of her decision.

The referendum is to be held under article 86 of the constitution and not under the article 85. It is not held as a result of a constitutional requirement resulting from a decision of the government. Hence the government is not responsible for any of the consequences and if as a result of the referendum it were to be decided that the country does not need a new constitution then it is the president and not the government as such that has to resign, if the opposition decides to take the "struggle" to the streets on this matter. In spite of all the talks on reconciliation, national, all party governments, if the pot wins at the referendum there would be a call for the president and the government to resign though no one knows whether the UNP could form a government under the provisions of the constitution in such circumstances. Whatever the result, after the referendum there would be chaos, anarchy leading to bloodshed and a civil war situation in the country and it is in the interests of the country that the president should call off the referendum. However, the interests of the country is not in the minds of most people in Sri Lanka ( I am not thinking only of the politicians) and it is very clear that all the political parties are acting in the interests of the leaders of the parties. The words reconciliation, national have no meaning and they are being used to mislead a public who in turn mislead the politicians!

It now appears that Ms. Kumaratunga is thinking of calling off the referendum. It has nothing to do with the money spent on the exercise or the consequences of the referendum. She seems to be feeling comfortable to call off the referendum. Let us go back to the recent incidents that led to the referendum. It appears that the referendum was announced to get a breathing space for the president after the sacking of Mr. Hakeem. Ms. Kumaratunga was probably trying to kill two birds with one stone by attempting to get the "package" approved through the referendum. However her main interest was and is defeating the no confidence motion and the survival of the government. Mr. Hakeem who was following an extreme form of racist "kappan" politics had to be removed and Ms. Kumaratunga has to congratulated on having done so, even belatedly. She should have sacked Mr. Hakeem long ago soon after he started demanding various "kappan" including a separate district for Kalmunai (Gal Amuna) and ambassadorships and other posts for his relatives and close associates. It is unfortunate that some of those organisations that had been clamouring for the removal of Mr. Hakeem did not even make a statement congratulating Ms. Kumaratunga after he was sacked. This clearly shows that even most of the organisations and parties which claim to be working in the interests of the country are having other objectives and working according to the agenda of a third party.

Once Mr. Hakeem was sacked the PA government lost the majority in the parliament and was under the threat of losing at the debate on the no confidence motion. At that time the government did not know how the JVP would vote and in fact the JVP itself did not know the policy it should adopt with respect to the no confidence motion. The JVP was in a crisis and if the government decided to face the no confidence motion, the JVP more than the PA would have been in a difficult situation. The government instead of taking up the challenge, in order to survive turned to other means by proroguing the sessions of the parliament. Even if the government were to lose at the no confidence motion debate, as a result of the JVP voting with the UNP, the PA could have won the general elections campaigning on a nationalist programme, winning back the vote that went to the JVP at the general elections held last year. However the pink socialist SLMP policies of Ms. Kumaratunga prevented her from taking such a step and she decided to buy time to win back a majority in the parliament through other means. While the parliament was prorogued till the seventh of September a referendum was fixed for the twenty first of August. In the meantime Ms. Kumaratunga expected something to happen that would make sure that the government would not be defeated by the no confidence motion.

Though she was requested by some ministers to call off the referendum she did not do so as she wanted an answer to the more immediate problem created by the no confidence motion. The ministers were not in a position to suggest any strategy to defeat the no confidence motion and she was having second thoughts of calling off the referendum. Now she is in a position to call off the referendum as she now knows that the government would not be defeated in the parliament by way of a no confidence motion. The JVP is now almost sure not to vote with the UNP and most probably they (the JVP) would abstain at the no confidence motion debate. The opposition, or rather the UNP that boasted of 115 votes in the parliament now has only105 votes with the Sihala Urumaya vote. The NMAT wing of the Sihala Urumaya is competing with the JVP for the vote of the national minded youth and it is very unlikely that they (SU) will vote with the UNP when the JVP is abstaining. The PA on the otherhand has 109 votes in the parliament, more than enough to defeat the no confidence motion and now the UNP as a face saving measure could only withdraw the no confidence motion on the pretext that since the government has called off the referendum democracy has been safeguarded!

With the emergence of the Hisbullah central committee in the SLMP the government is in a better position than it was when the parliament was prorogued. Mr. Hakeem has been challenged and Mr. Hisbullah seems to have the support of Mrs. Farial Ashraaf. With all these developments the government may end up by even having a working majority in the parliament. Ms. Kumaratunga may not be a statesman (is it statesperson?) but she is one of the most astute politicians in Asia. In the name of democracy she may even advance the date and summon the parliament before the seventh of September knowing very well that she could go on happily till the UNP decide on the next no confidence motion! If the west cannot understand Sri Lankan politics with their abstract theories then they should blame only the political scientists who construct those theories.

Did the UNP know that the no confidence motion was more important than the referendum? During the last month or so they were more interested in safeguarding parliamentary democracy than in the referendum. While the JVP has already started their campaign for the pot at the referendum the UNP has done almost nothing in that respect. In fact the JVP criticised the UNP for not doing much in respect of the referendum and for being confined to the parliament. According to the JVP, the UNP was only running round the parliament (parlimenthuva vate duvanava) instead of organising rallies and meetings to defeat the lamp at the referendum. Perhaps the UNP understands better than the JVP what Ms. Kumaratunga is doing. Was she herself only running round the parliament? Was her main strategy to defeat the UNP in the parliament?

If Ms. Kumaratunga eventually decides to call off the referendum the biggest casualty of such a decision would be Dr. Vikramabahu Karunaratne who through his Vama Sama project was thinking of smuggling the revolution making use of the referendum. Instead of a revolution he would have to be satisfied with a permanent dream of a revolution.