Mon, Nov 10, 2003 - Page 5 News List

President vows not to call early election

NO CRISIS President Chandrika Kumaratunga says there is no reason for concern about the political situation in Sri Lanka, unless her prime minister makes it less stable


Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga gestures during an interview in Colombo on Saturday. Kumaratunga, locked in a power struggle with her prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, called for all parties to join her in forming a national government.


President Chandrika Kumaratunga has promised not to call an early parliamentary election, unless she is forced to by further developments in a political crisis that has engulfed Sri Lanka.

Her political rival Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was seeking yesterday to muster support, and was slated to meet with the ambassadors of the four nations that have strongly backed his peace efforts with Tamil Tiger rebels -- the US, Norway, India and Japan, an official from his office said on condition of anonymity.

Kumaratunga, who has fired three key ministers and suspended Parliament in a showdown with the prime minister, said her party, which is the opposition in Parliament, is ready for an election.

But she told India's New Delhi Television News late Saturday that she will not order a new election, unless "forced by further developments which I don't ....intend to cause or provoke."

Kumaratunga also denied that her actions last week have sparked a constitutional crisis.

"I don't think it's a constitutional crisis unless Mr. Wickremesinghe and some of his ministers make it into one," she said.

Angered by the prime minister's approach to peace talks with the rebels, Kumaratunga last Tuesday fired three powerful Cabinet ministers, ordered Parliament suspended for two weeks and briefly declared a state of emergency -- all while the prime minister was out of the country.

The state of emergency was later revoked.

Wickremesinghe's administration has spearheaded efforts to end the war with Tamil Tiger rebels, who have fought for two decades to create a homeland for the country's minority Tamils. While the Tigers have given up their demand for an independent state, they still want broad autonomy in Tamil-dominated regions in the country's north and east.

But Kumaratunga, who lost an eye in a 1999 Tiger assassination attempt, has long opposed the prime minister's peacemaking style. She says he has been too quick to agree to Tiger demands and has not even required the ruthless guerrilla group disarm first.

The rebels recently submitted a proposal for broad powers of self-government in the regions under their control, which the president swiftly condemned.

Some 65,000 people have died in the war. Fighting between the government and rebels stopped in February last year, when both sides signed a Norwegian-brokered ceasefire.

President Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe belong to rival political parities and share a cohabitation arrangement in this Indian Ocean island nation.

Wickremesinghe's United National Party defeated Kumaratunga's Peoples' Alliance in December 2001 elections. But the prime minister only has a two-seat majority in the 225-member Parliament, and the president has broad powers to sack him and Parliament.

Neither the president nor the prime minister seemed willing to budge from their positions.

In the Indian television interview, Kumaratunga defended her decision to take over the defense portfolio -- a move which has alarmed the rebels.

"It was a very normal action, almost routine that I should have done some months ago," said Kumaratunga, who is also the commander in chief of 120,000 Sri Lankan armed forces.

On Saturday, Wickremesinghe's supporters conditionally rejected her appeal to form a coalition government.

Despite the power struggle, officials have said an upcoming visit by Norwegian peace brokers remained on track.

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