US embassy cable - 02COLOMBO1441

Government and president headed for a showdown, with a snap election possible

Identifier: 02COLOMBO1441
Wikileaks: View 02COLOMBO1441 at Wikileaks.org
Origin: Embassy Colombo
Created: 2002-08-06 11:00:00
Classification: CONFIDENTIAL//NOFORN
Tags: PGOV PINS PINR PREL CE Elections Political Parties
Redacted: This cable was not redacted by Wikileaks.
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 COLOMBO 001441 
 
SIPDIS 
 
NOFORN 
 
DEPARTMENT FOR SA, SA/INS; LONDON FOR POL/RIEDEL; NSC 
FOR E. MILLARD 
 
E.O. 12958: DECL: 08-06-12 
TAGS: PGOV, PINS, PINR, PREL, CE, Elections, Political Parties 
SUBJECT:  Government and president headed for a 
showdown, with a snap election possible 
 
Refs:  (A) Colombo-SA/INS 08-05-02 telecon 
-      (B) Colombo 1433, and previous 
 
(U) Classified by Ambassador E. Ashley Wills. 
Reasons: 1.5 (b,d). 
 
1. (C) Summary:  President Kumaratunga and Prime 
Minister Wickremesinghe are headed for a showdown.  In 
an August 5 conversation with the Ambassador, G.L. 
Peiris, a senior minister, said the GSL plans to demand 
that Kumaratunga agree to a constitutional provision 
voiding her right to call a parliamentary election.  If 
she does not agree, the GSL plans to call snap polls 
now.  One factor that apparently precipitated the 
government's decision to force a showdown was its belief 
that Kumaratunga was about to hatch an elaborate plan to 
topple the PM.  Our assessment is that an election would 
prove disruptive for the peace process.  End Summary. 
 
--------------------- 
Headed for a Showdown 
--------------------- 
 
2.  (C) As foreshadowed in Ref B, the tense cohabitation 
relationship between President Kumaratunga and Prime 
Minister Wickremesinghe is headed for a showdown.  In an 
August 5 conversation with the Ambassador, G.L. Peiris, 
a senior minister, said the GSL is planning to demand 
that Kumaratunga agree to a constitutional provision 
voiding her right to call a parliamentary election. 
(Note:  Per her constitutional prerogatives, the 
president could call for a new election at any point one 
year after the last election, which took place in 
December 2001.)  She must also agree not to take 
punitive action against MPs of her party who support the 
GSL's bill on this issue.  If she does not agree to 
these terms, the GSL plans to call snap polls now. 
(Note:  An election would take place about six weeks to 
two months after being called.  The rough contours of 
Peiris' comments to the Ambassador regarding the 
possibility of snap polls were published in daily 
newspapers on August 6 in blaring headlines.  End Note.) 
 
3.  (C) Peiris said the PM will present this ultimatum 
to former Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, a key 
associate of Kumaratunga's, late August 6, and request 
that Kumraratunga reply in short order.  In doing so, 
Peiris noted that the PM will stress that if she agrees 
to the above points he will instruct his United National 
Front (UNF) party members to tone down criticism of her 
and her People's Alliance (PA) party. 
 
4.  (C) The decision to press for a showdown was not 
easily taken, Peiris remarked.  Key figures in the UNF 
government, including PM Wickremesinghe, had met late 
August 5 and come to the decision only after extensive 
debate, including frantic talks throughout the weekend. 
The general feeling from all shades of party opinion -- 
not only from diehard opponents of Kumaratunga's -- was 
that the UNF had to do something to constrain her now 
because the current situation was not sustainable.  In 
particular, a memo purportedly prepared by the PA that 
was leaked to the press and published on August 4 had 
deeply worried the UNF, as it set out a near-term plan 
to topple Wickremesinghe's government (see more below). 
 
5.  (C) When asked, Peiris replied that he thought an 
election was "likely" and he predicted that the UNF 
could pick up 12-15 seats.  Such a gain would give the 
UNF a commanding position in Parliament vis-a-vis the 
president, he felt.  That said, it was possible that 
Kumaratunga might agree to the terms proffered or 
perhaps try to negotiate a different solution.  Many 
members of her party did not want an election, fearing 
they would lose their seats.  Their views might have an 
affect on her.  The UNF would carefully review her 
response in any case.  The Ambassador underscored that 
the U.S. continued to urge both sides to show restraint 
and not to divert focus from key issues, such as the 
peace process and economic reforms. 
 
------------------------------ 
Purported PA Memo Stirs Debate 
------------------------------ 
 
6.  (C) As noted by Peiris and touched on in Ref B, one 
of the recent events that have apparently galvanized the 
GSL to action involves a memo allegedly drafted by the 
PA and then leaked to the press.  The memo sets out a 
scheme in which the PA topples Prime Minister 
Wickremesinghe and then forms a government headed by 
former Foreign Minister Kadirgamar.  The memo is 
somewhat lurid, with sentences like, "We must plan a 
constitutional coup using executive powers to the 
maximum..." and "A case must be built rapidly against 
the present PM facilitating his removal from office, 
enabling the president to appoint a PM of her choice." 
 
7.  (C/NF) The exact provenance of the memo is unclear. 
The UNF has been shouting from the ramparts that it is 
evidence of a "plot" by the PA and Peiris told the 
Ambassador that the document was "spirited away" from 
the desk of Mangala Sameeraweera, a senior PA MP.  For 
its part, the PA has denied all involvement, with 
Kadirgamar stating that he knows not a wit about it and 
that his name was taken in vain. 
 
------- 
Comment 
------- 
 
8.  (C) We doubt that Kumaratunga will react well to an 
ultimatum designed to limit her powers.  The GSL seems 
serious, however, and a snap election appears to be a 
real possibility.  There has been a slew of editorials 
urging the two sides to ratchet down the rhetoric and it 
is still possible that cooler heads will prevail.  It's 
important that that happens.  With Colombo fixated on 
its domestic machinations, little attention is being 
paid to crucial issues, such as the peace process and 
economic reforms.  An election would prove even more 
disruptive, especially because the GSL is now closely 
engaged in the sensitive process of trying to set up 
negotiations with the Tigers later this year.  End 
Comment. 
 
9. (U) Minimize considered. 
 
WILLS 

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