Saving A Dynasty

For Sri Lankas President Chandrika Kumaratunga running the country is like a family business, but she is taking a gamble at next weeks snap election that could decide the destiny of her dynasty.

The daughter of two prime ministers, Kumaratunga, who has been president for 10 years, has surprised her closest allies with political manoeuvering and controversial decisions.rn

Among the most eyebrow-raising was her recent alliance with the marxist party allegedly responsible for gunning down her own actor-turned-politician husband in 1988.

Yet even her opponents acknowledge her charm.

Kumaratunga is not contesting the April 2 parliamentary election, but the results could determine her own political future more than anyone elses.

She is on her second and final six-year term as President.

Unless she manages to secure a parliament that would revise the 1978 constitution, her career comes to an effective end after the current presidential term.

She stunned the country in January by saying she had held a private ceremony to effectively give herself one more year in office.

rn Her rivals were quick to declare that it was unprecedented in the democratic world for a president to have a private investiture.

But Kumaratunga has brushed the criticism aside and said she could serve beyond 2005 if she chose.

“It is up to me to take a decision whether I am to continue in the office of president till 2006 or not,” she said.

She won the all-powerful presidency with a vow to scrap it and revert the country of 19 million people to a Westminster-style parliamentary system and restore ethnic peace. But she has not done either.

Her attempt to rule hand-in-hand with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was elected separately and is from a rival party, has been a disaster that ended with her calling of parliamentary elections four years ahead of schedule.

After failing to talk peace with Tiger rebels in 1995, she unleashed a new policy of “war-for-peace.”

She raised the annual defence budget to an unprecedented one billion dollars and mounted the biggest military campaign against the Tigers.

But she later invited Norway to come in and broker peace, although the process had stalled by the time Wickremesinghe took over parliament in 2001 elections and revived talks.

She has since publicly accused both Oslo and Wickremesinghe of overstepping their briefs and jeopardising Sri Lankas national security.

What has raised questions in her own party is her alliance in January with the Marxist JVP, or Peoples Liberation Front, in a bid to topple Wickremesinghe.

Thousands of members of Kumaratungas party were killed by the JVP between 1987 and 1990, including her husband Vijaya, who was gunned down in her presence in February 1988.

Joining hands with the JVP, she is asking for re-election for her party to ensure “continuity with change.”

In May 2002, she vowed to “skin alive” members of her party who called for a government of national unity with Wickremesinghe.

But six months later, she herself was seeking unity with him.

Kumaratungas late father, Solomon Bandaranaike, was a founding member of the United National Party. Her late mother, Sirima Bandaranaike, continued her fathers socialist policies between 1970 and 1977.

She has told interviewers that running the country was like a family business, but she did not want her two children to get into the islands “filthy” politics.

Kumaratungas allies need to win the April 2 vote if she is to have a high-profile role in leading the country, as failure could push her into an even more hostile cohabitation with the prime minister in the final years of a chequered presidency. (Source: AFP)