Well done, ma’am

Yesterday’s news that what appeared to be an emerging alliance between the SLFP and the JVP is not going to happen at least for the time being will certainly disappoint those who hoped to see the Ranil Wickremesinghe government quickly fall and themselves installed in office. But whatever his or her politics, the national minded must surely accord President Chandrika Kumaratunga a well-deserved accolade for not caving in to the opportunism of instant political advantage and going the JVP way of dealing with the peace process.

There is no escaping the reality that this country must forge a real and lasting peace and there is no way of doing that without negotiating with the LTTE. This newspaper has been consistently unhappy about the government playing along with the ‘all take and no give’ strategy of the Tigers, making unbelievable and sometimes criminal concessions just to keep the peace process on track. The LTTE have made and won outrageous demands and are today in a most advantageous bargaining position. Given what happened in the USA on 9/11 and the resulting anti-terrorist global backlash, the situation should have been anything but that. But the Tigers are sitting pretty, no doubt sprucing-up the latest impossible demands they plan to make as the price for returning to the negotiating table.

All this is undoubtedly true, but there is no military option that Sri Lanka can resort to now. We have had the benefit of the cease-fire, warts and all, for 19 months and its beneficial impact on the economy is readily visible. But, as has been repeatedly pointed out, no war does not mean peace and we are far away from that happy situation. The National Question or ethnic problem, however it may be termed, could have been resolved many years ago without the blood and carnage if the major political players were big enough to place the national interest above their own petty political advantage.

The history of what both the UNP and SLFP did to prevent their rivals in government effect a settlement is too well known to bear repetition. The end result is that the resolution of the problem that has bled this nation white, on terms that would be grabbed today by the Sinhala polity, was not to be.

That is why we say that President Kumaratunga deserves the commendation of all national-minded Lankans for refusing to play the game the way the JVP demanded for the short-term advantages for herself and her party. That’s what many of her predecessors did and the country continues to pay a heavy price for their folly. No settlement will ever be possible on the JVP’s terms and tying up any deal with that party on that basis will mean the end of both the on-going peace process and the international goodwill that Sri Lanka currently enjoys. The president obviously understands the bigger picture better than many of her party colleagues greedy for office and she has in the best tradition of good statesmanship refused to subvert the national interest for that of her party.

That does not mean that the danger is past. While no immediate alliance between the SLFP and JVP will be forthcoming, both the PA and JVP remains firmly committed to topping the UNF administration. If they can get the numbers right, as Ranil Wickremesinghe was able to do in 2000 and reduce the government to a minority, then the president will have no difficulty in installing a prime minister and government of her choice. She has the constitutional power and, indeed, the national obligation to do so if the parliamentary balance tilts in her favour. Given the way the government is letting the Tigers run circles round it, that task has no doubt been made easier for the PA and its allies.

As we have reported in our front page today, the mere fact that an instant arrangement between the SLFP and the JVP has not been achieved does not mean that the two parties will not help each other at any forthcoming election whenever that would be. It also necessarily follows that they will cooperate with each other to secure an early election which the president is empowered to call at anytime now if she so wishes. She misjudged both the handicaps of incumbency and the electoral wind the last time round and suffered defeat. In her next essay she would no doubt try to learn from those mistakes and get her act right although elections, like cricket, are always full of glorious uncertainties.

The terms the JVP was able to impose on the PA in the months before the last election to set up the "probationary government" it chose not to join are a clear indication of how far governments would go to remain in power. Of course many of the difficult conditions agreed upon were only superficially implemented. One example was that ministers forced out of office by the 12-member cabinet requirement retained their perks at the taxpayer’s expense. The JVP did not have time to crack any whips on this or any other score of omission or commission because CBK used her prorogation powers to forestal a parliamentary defeat and dissolved the legislature no sooner she had the constitutional authority to do so with the passing of one year from the previous election.

Next time round there will definitely be a mutually beneficial electoral arrangement between the JVP and SLFP if not the PA. The JVP may also choose to enter a coalition government if such a contest dethrones the UNF. Meanwhile the immediate risk to the continuance of the peace process has passed although how the government handles the process itself will certainly be a factor that will determine whether the next election will be premature or not.

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