Tue, Nov 11, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Sri Lankan president's power grab backfires

WEAKER THAN EVER The prime minister retained his parliamentary majority after his childhood playmate and main political rival tried to get his supporters to defect


It began with an attempt by the president to reinforce her power: parliament was suspended, three powerful Cabinet ministers fired, a state of emergency declared. Small squads of soldiers were deployed to key positions in this seaside capital city.

But nearly a week after Sri Lanka was plunged into political crisis and its ever-fragile peace process made even more precarious, President Chandrika Kumaratunga appears to be weaker than ever.

Her political rival, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, was welcomed back from an overseas trip by thousands of ecstatic supporters, members of parliament refused to defect to her cause and the Tamil Tiger rebels -- a distant but powerful player in the country's politics -- made clear her moves were unacceptable. The president had hoped to gain a few more seats in parliament during the crisis, and was aggressively courting some of the prime minister's supporters to switch sides, observers say. But Wickremesinghe's two-seat majority stood firm.

``The indications are that the president is now in a weakened state,'' said Jehan Perera, an analyst with the National Peace Council, an independent Colombo think tank.

Still, Kumaratunga ended up proving a couple things. The crisis made it clear she has the support of the military, which followed her orders as the turmoil erupted.

She's also shown she's a politician who cannot be ignored.

Kumaratunga, who lost an eye to a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber in a 1999 assassination attempt, has a virulent distrust of the Tigers, a ruthless rebel army known for kidnapping children to use as soldiers and dispatching women fighters on suicide bombing missions.

She regularly criticizes Wick-remesinghe, who leads the peace talks, saying he gives in too easily to their demands.

To her supporters, the president is one of the few politicians willing to stand up forcefully against the rebels.

The constitution gives the president more power than the prime minister, including control of the military and the ability to dissolve parliament. But Wickremesinghe has emerged as the country's dominant politician over the past 18 months, his power buttressed by a slim parliamentary majority, the support of the country's business community and his leadership in the peace process.

"She's been sidelined," Perera said, "It's difficult for her to take."

So she tried to reassert her position with dramatic -- and completely legal -- moves that stunned this tropical island nation. After nearly 20 years of civil war, with regular suicide bombings, bloody battles and political killings, Sri Lanka had grown used to comparatively quiet politics since the ceasefire was signed.

As criticism grew of her power grabs, she simply denied there was any turmoil.

In a Saturday night interview, she said she'd long kept political upheaval at bay with her "super-human restraint," denying there was a constitutional crisis and insisting she'd never declared a state of emergency, contradicting her own top aides.

She also denied any personal disputes between herself and the prime minister, with whom she has traded public insults for years.

"I have certain criticisms and problems about the way very important matters of the state have been handled," she said. "There is no personal clash at all."

Their clashes are based in politics, but the sheer hostility has become a serious issue in Sri Lanka.

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