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Chandrika consolidates position as UPFA strength goes up

By V.S. Sambandan

COLOMBO, OCT. 30. The Sri Lankan President, Chandrika Kumaratunga, further consolidated her position today with the appointment of three non-Cabinet Ministers from a breakaway faction of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC).

The appointments take the strength of the ruling United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) to 118 in the 225-member Parliament, giving Ms. Kumaratunga more parliamentary leverage, but still short of the two-third majority (150 seats) to bring in the promised far-reaching constitutional reforms to end the island-nation's decades-long separatist crisis.

The three new faces were appointed as Ministers for Rehabilitation and District Development for the three eastern districts. N. Abdul Majeed was Minister for the Trincomalee district, while Abdul Risath and Ameer Ali Shihabdeen, were made Ministers for Batticaloa and Vanni, the President's Office announced.

Comfortable majority

The appointments, against the backdrop of sharpening differences between Sri Lanka's three major political players — the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the United National Party (UNP) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) — will give the ruling United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) a comfortable majority ahead of the forthcoming budget.

The differences between the SLPF and the Opposition UNP surfaced again, with the Opposition party raising issues such as the term of the office of the Presidency and the possibilities of creating a Constituent Assembly and changing the Speaker.

Ms. Kumaratunga, who was re-elected President in 1999 in an island-wide poll held a year ahead of schedule, last year said she could stay in power till 2006 as she had a ``secret swearing-in'' in 2000. According to the Sri Lankan Constitution, the second term of an incumbent President begins at the end of the first term. However, a controversy emerged early this year on when her second and final term as Head of State ends as Ms. Kumaratunga was sworn in for her second-term immediately after surviving an attempted assassination by an LTTE suicide bomber and winning the December 1999 Presidential election,

The Cabinet Spokesman, Mangala Samaraweera, joined issue with the UNP when he said Ms. Kumaratunga could continue till 2006, if required. Significantly, despite the sharp tone of the controversy, neither the SLFP nor the Opposition has sought judicial interpretation, and have restricted their sparring to political and public forums.

Other confrontation

The other confrontation between the two parties — the possibility of the President converting Parliament to a Constituent Assembly — took a sharper turn with the Leader of the Opposition and UNP, Ranil Wickremesinghe, on Friday warning that such a ``short-cut'' and ``undemocratic'' move to amend the Constitution would not prevent the LTTE from setting up ``another Constituent Assembly in the north-east and following it up with a declaration of a separate state,'' The Island reported.

Politically, the move to covert Parliament to a Constituent Assembly would mean that the SLFP would have to change the current Speaker, W.J.M. Lokubandara (UNP), as he would become the head of the Assembly. While the Opposition opposes any such move, the Government maintains that the Parliament that elected a Speaker can also change him. The ruling UPFA was a minority when the current House was convened, but since then has gained a majority.

Resistance within

The move for a Constituent Assembly is also likely to be resisted from within the ruling coalition, as minority parties who gave the UPFA the majority in the House are opposed to changes in the electoral system.

Differences within the two main constituents of the UPFA — the SLFP and the JVP, which has 39 MPs - have also entered the public domain with the propaganda secretary of the JVP, Wimal Weerawansa, telling a public meeting outside Colombo that the President was powerless prior to his party's support. At the national capital, however, the JVP has aligned itself with the SLFP and is a part of the Cabinet.

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