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Revelation by Sri Lankan PM Deepens Politicial Crisis - 2004-01-14

Sri Lanka's president says she had a secret inauguration ceremony that entitles her to remain in power an additional year. The revelation is likely to further deepen Sri Lanka's political crisis brought about by the rivalry between the president and the prime minister.

Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga says she had a private swearing-in ceremony in 2000 - one year after she was last elected. She says that means her six-year term ends in 2006 - and not 2005.

The revelation came late Tuesday - and threatens to further complicate Sri Lanka's political crisis, which has stalled efforts to end a war with Tamil separatists.

"It's obviously going to create a lot of turmoil and instability in terms of the general, conventional belief that the president was going to be president until 2005," says Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, an analyst with the Center for Policy Alternatives, a think-tank in Sri Lanka's capital Colombo. "And all sorts of accusations will now arise that she's attempting to bend the rules and all of that kind of thing."

Sri Lanka has been mired in a political crisis since November, when President Kumaratunga exercised her constitutional right to take over three ministries - including defense - that previously were under the control Prime Minister Ranil Wickremsinghe, who is from a different party.

Mr. Wickremesinghe has forged a ceasefire with the Tamil Tiger rebels, who have waged a 20-year war for greater rights for the ethnic Tamil minority.

Ms. Kumaratunga has criticized the prime minister, charging that he has been too soft on the rebels. Since she took over the Defense Ministry, the peace process has been stalled. Mr. Wickremesinghe argues that the president should take over peace negotiations - or give him back the defense portfolio.

That is something analysts say the president does not want to do.

"Defense is very central to governance in a country like Sri Lanka, which is only in a ceasefire," says Jehan Perera is with the National Peace Council, a peace advocacy group." "A government without defense is like a lion without teeth."

President Kumaratunga was first sworn into office for a six-year term in 1994. She then called elections a year early and won re-election in 1999. It is likely the Sri Lanka Supreme Court will consider the question of when her term ends.

But the controversy might not stop there, because analysts say, the court may try to influence politics.

"She has got the law on her side, especially because any matter of law will be decided by the Supreme Court, and the Chief Justice is known to be very sympathetic to her," says Mr. Perera.

A pro-Tamil Tiger Web site has been consistently critical of the president's actions, which it says threaten to scuttle the peace process. If the political crisis is not resolved soon, analysts say, the president may be forced to call parliamentary elections in the next few months.