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Political Bickering in Sri Lanka

December 10, 2001

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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) _ In a first sign of a post-election power struggle, the United National Party of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on Monday asked President Chandrika Kumaratunga not to interfere with its formation of a Cabinet.

``For a smooth and democratic transition of power, the president should let the prime minister decide his Cabinet freely,″ Wickremesinghe’s spokesman, G.L. Peiris, said in a televised interview.

It was the first time since the Dec. 5 parliamentary election that either side has addressed Wickremesinghe’s role in the government. The president, elected every six years, is constitutionally Sri Lanka’s most powerful official.

Under the previous government launched in 1994 and run by her Peoples’ Alliance party, Kumaratunga had named herself defense and finance minister and maintained authority over almost every aspect of the government.

``The president must take into account the spirit of democracy and let the prime minister decide how he wants to run his administration,″ said Peiris.

According to state media and political party sources, Kumaratunga _ elected in 1999 to a term that ends in 2005 _ wants to retain control of the defense ministry. Sri Lanka, an island nation in the Indian Ocean, is plagued by an 18-year civil war that has killed more than 64,000 people.

Wickremesinghe’s party, returning to power after a gap of seven years, does not want the defense portfolio to be handled by her. He has promised peace talks, while Kumaratunga wants to press a military offensive.

``Being the president, she is the supreme commander of the armed forces, but this does not mean she has the right to name herself the defense minister,″ said Peiris, who defected from Kumaratunga’s government earlier this year.

The situation of a prime minister and president from different parties has occurred only once before, and only briefly, and in that case the transitional president did not interfere with the government.

Wickremesinghe’s three-party United National Front won 129 of the 225 Parliament seats. The People’s Alliance along with its supporting parties collected 96 seats.

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