Feizal Samath

President Chandrika Kumaratunga on Monday was heading for a major showdown with her government’s key ally, the JVP, and one of her biggest political challenges ever, with the latter threatening to quit the ruling alliance if she signed an administrative pact with Tamil rebels. The president has called an emergency meeting of the parliamentary group to explain the role of the joint mechanism with the rebels for post-tsunami work in the northeast region, parts of which come under the control of the LTTE.

Kumaratunga won approval of the administrative structure for post-tsunami work from India last week during meetings she had with Indian leaders in New Delhi. But the biggest opposition to her proposal comes from within government ranks, which is opposed to any joint administrative structure with the LTTE, be it for post-tsunami work or the peace process.

It is widely believed in Colombo that Kumaratunga plans to ink the deal on June 15. The joint mechanism is supported by international donors, who issued a statement of support after a two-day meeting in Sri Lanka on May 16, India and most parties, including the main opposition United National Party (UNP). Putting further pressure on the government, the JVP has also decided to pull out its support to the ruling coalition in control of all seven provincial councils. The JVP’s 39 seats in parliament make up the numbers the ruling Kumaratunga-led coalition needs to govern the country.

Political analysts said the JVP holds the key to the government’s future and any pullout could lead to a collapse in the ruling coalition. Kumaratunga’s alliance has suffered similar crises in the past five years forcing her to dissolve the government when the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and the JVP withdraw support.

This time, however, the analysts say, the UNP is unlikely to push its claim to form a government since it is setting its eye on presidential elections due in around December 2005. “There is no purpose in taking over the reins at this time when there are many crises,” a veteran newspaper editor noted.

The date of presidential elections is in dispute after Kumaratunga was sworn in twice after her victory at the December 1999 presidential poll. A few days before the poll, she was injured and lost an eye in an attempted assassination by Tamil rebels. But in mid-2000 too she was sworn in at a private ceremony at president’s house. The president’s office says her six-year term ends only in mid-2006 and not end-2005, a decision that angered the UNP and other opposition parties and triggered an opposition campaign to oppose any change to the December 2005 date for elections.

Kumaratunga is completing her second term, the maximum allowed for a president under the constitution and cannot have another go at the presidency. The main challenger at the next presidential poll is UNP and opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe while others in the contest are likely to be current Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse while the JVP has said it is fielding its own candidate. Wickremesinghe appears to be the strongest candidate so far and most likely winner.

Samath, a freelancer, writes for THT from Colombo