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Newly Elected President

Daunting challenges face new president.

Sri Lanka leader Chandrika Kumaratunga must act quickly to solve problems of internal strife and economic difficulty, writes K.T.Rajasingham.

Chandrika Kumaratungas resounding victory in Sri Lankas battle of the widows gives her a clear mandate for reconciliation and re-negotiation with Tamil Tiger separatist group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

With more than 61 per cent of the national vote in Wednesdays presidential poll she eclipsed the performances of the previous incumbents, J.R.Jayewardene who received 52 per cent and the late Ranasinghe Premadasa with 50.42 per cent in the hustings of 1983 and 1988 respectively.

Outgoing president D.B.Wijetunge who succeeded after the demise of Ranasinghe Premadasa in May 1993, is expected to hand over the presidency to Kumaratunga, who also holds the post of prime minister, not later than January 20.

The newly-elected president is the widow of Vijaya Kumaratunga, the matinee idol turned popular politician. Her presidential victory represent endorsement of changes to Sri Lankas political set-up that she is proposing, not least the abolition of the post of president by July 1995. She is faced with the daunting task of nation building, and creating an environment for economic stability, peace, harmony and unity.

While she is riding the crest of victory, she must not delay in solving issues such as the festering ethnic problems of the Tamils and the Tamil-speaking minority communities of Sri Lanka; economic stability, the fate of the executive presidency, and the fading international image of Sri Lanka.

After the parliamentary elections held in August, Kumaratunga announced her intention to negotiate with the Tamil Tigers who are engaged in armed struggle for a separate state for Tamils living in the North and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka. Contacts had been established and negotiations started only to be disrupted by the by the assassination of the opposition presidential candidate Gamini Dissanayake and 53 others on Sep 23.

Subsequently, it has been alleged that the Tamil Tigers were responsible for the killings. It has become customary to blame the Tamil Tigers for all assassinations and acts of violence in Sri Lanka. Though successive governments have failed to pin culpability on the group for any acts violent killings.

In the absence of proof of the Tigers involvement in the killings, Kumaratunga should not hesitate to continue the negotiations. The government negotiating team should insist that Tamil Tiger supreme Velupillai Prabkaran sign a cease-fire or agreement to stop hostile activities prior to continuing further negotiations. To date, the government has failed to take into consideration that in the absence of such an agreement, it was business as usual for the Tamil Tigers as well as the Sri Lankan Armed Forces. As Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, Kumaratunga is now in a pivotal position to enter into such an agreement without which any negotiation amount to mockery.

Reconciliation and compromise are the two key factors in any future negotiations with the Tamil Tigers, and it want be easy for the government negotiators to match the wile and wit of the talented leader of the Tamil Tigers negotiating team, Dr. Anton Balasingham.

After the parliamentary elections, Kumaratunga who led the Peoples Alliance, was sworn in as Prime Minister as well as minister of finance, thus inheriting the empty coffers at the Treasury. The 17-year protracted war on the minorities absorbed more than 70 percent of the annual budget and inflation is running to 500 per cent. Cost of living increases are rampant and the unemployment rate is soaring.

Human rights abuses, extra-judicial killings and involuntary disappearances of several thousand Sri Lankan could be a Damocles sword hanging over future request to donor countries to finance her economic recovery programs.

The traditional export commodities such as tea, rubber and coconut products are facing stiff competition in the international market and the tourism industry is the heaviest causality of the ethnic turmoil.

The executive presidency, which was introduced by the constitution of 1978 by then Prime Minister and President J.R.Jayewardene, is another challenging issue for Kumaratunga. Its abolition has been proposed on numerous occasion and was a central plank during the parliamentary and presidential elections.

Ceylon attained dominion status and independence from Britain in 1948 under the Ceylon (Constitution and Independence) Orders in Council of 1946 and 1947, and the Governor General, representing the British Monarchy, became formal head of the government. In 1972, Mrs. Srimavo Bandaranaike, the then Prime Minister, introduced a new constitution and made Ceylon a sovereign republic. Ceylon was renamed Sri Lanka and the presidency was introduced with the president a formal head of government nominated by the prime minister. But again in 1978, Jayewardene introduced another new constitution with an executive president elected by the country at large. The presidency format was a mixture of the American and French formats, and thus the unicameral parliament was pushed to the back stage.

The executive presidency became the supreme organ of the state and the separation of powers became a joke as the president assumed the role of the supreme commander of the armed forces. Thereafter the basic democratic fabric- the rule of law was sidelined and this led to rampant abuse of human rights. The executive president, once elected, was not responsible to anyone and there were no checks and balances. These factors festered into the ethnic turmoil, insurgencies, assassinations, violence and disorder.

To keep up her post-elect pledge, Kumaratunga is left with practically no options. To get rid of the presidency requires a two-third majority in 225 member parliament, in order to amend or rescind the 1978 constitution.

Unfortunately, the Peoples Alliance led by Kumaratunga possess 113 only seats and although small Tamil political parties have rallied to support the Alliance giving a total of 138 members, this is far below the two-third majority required.

Therefore, Kumaratunga is left with the option of dissolving parliament and going for a snap election, while her victories are still fresh, and seeking the mandate from the people to amend the constitution to abolish the executive presidency and restore order and normalcy.

The country has placed its trust and confidence in Kumaratunga and expects results. Will she deliver?

The Nation - Thailand - 12/11/1994.