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Daughter Taps Mother to Help Lead Sri Lanka

November 15, 1994|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW DELHI — In 1960, the Indian Ocean island known then as Ceylon entered global record books by giving itself the world's first elected female prime minister. On Monday, it topped itself when the new president, a woman, installed her mother as premier.

Mother and daughter, a governing combination unique in the modern world, hugged and wished each other long life as the saga of Sri Lanka's political first family--one whose intrigue, tragedy and tears would rival any prime-time soap opera--embarked on its latest episode.

In both cases, the prime minister was the same: Sirimavo Bandaranaike, now 78 and suffering physical impairment from arthritis and a stroke she had three years ago.

On Saturday, the younger of her two daughters, Chandrika Kumaratunga, took the oath of office to assume the presidency after a huge victory in national elections. The blowing of conch shells and the beating of drums heralded the inauguration of the fourth president of this West Virginia-size island republic near the Equator--and its last, if the current holder of the office has her way.

For Kumaratunga has promised to seek changes in the constitution to drastically prune the powers of her job by July to turn it into more of a ceremonial post. That presented her with a unique problem. The strong-willed woman who graduated from Paris' elite Institut des Etudes Politiques had become prime minister herself back in August when she led the left-leaning People's Alliance in elections for the Parliament.

Because the 49-year-old Kumaratunga could not hold both high offices, she needed to appoint someone to the premiership who would hand that job back when the time came, and perhaps even swap it for the presidency, observers said. She settled upon her mother.

"I have proposed and agreed to it," Kumaratunga told a news conference Saturday when asked if she and her mother would be in charge of the country. "Why, do you think it's nepotism?"

Bandaranaike, who was sworn in Monday at Temple Trees, the official residence of the prime minister, will take over a Cabinet that except for minor changes, is the same one her daughter headed, and in which she had served as minister without portfolio.

Kumaratunga, who had held the portfolios of finance, planning and ethnic affairs and integration, now picks up the defense minister's job as well, which is the president's by law.

Kumaratunga will remain ensconced at Temple Trees instead of occupying the official presidential residence, Sri Lankan officials told the United News of India agency. Bandaranaike, known throughout her country as simply "Mrs. B," will live at home in Colombo's fashionable Cinnamon Gardens, an indication of the mostly formal role she will almost certainly play.

The interaction of Sri Lanka's two most powerful governmental figures has been as tangled as the most complex of mother-daughter relationships. It took Bandaranaike some time to come to grips with being eclipsed by her daughter, say people who know the family well.

"She was initially not happy about it but had to accept the fact that her daughter is a more gifted politician," said one Colombo political observer who is close to both women.

Last week, she issued a statement of congratulations that indicated that she had learned to be content with the role of second fiddle. It must have been a bittersweet moment for the woman who made feminist history of sorts when, after the 1959 assassination of her husband, Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranaike, she became the first woman to become leader of a country by dint of democratic elections.

"Mrs. B" served two terms in the 1960s and 1970s, and left a checkered legacy. T.D.S.A. Dissanayaka, author of a recent study of his nation's politics, noted that her "socialist frolics" led to such an acute shortage of foodstuffs and essential consumer goods that Sri Lanka, an island surrounded by salt water, actually had to import salt.

In 1977, Bandaranaike's party lost power, and 17 years of victimization and political harassment began for the former premier and people loyal to her.

The mother is still titular head of the People's Alliance coalition that returned to power in August, as well as of its backbone, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), which was founded by her late husband. Her daughter, officially, is her party deputy.

But Bandaranaike's weakened and uncertain health and Kumaratunga's quiet but electrifying stump style caused, in effect, a reversal of roles. Kumaratunga also was able to checkmate her younger brother, Anura, 45, who had been the SLFP's national organizer but found his position weakened by his sister's first, and unexpected, victory, in elections for the provincial council in the Colombo area in May, 1993.

Anura quit the party in a huff to join the then-ruling United National Party, and the way was open for Kumaratunga's rapid ascent that culminated in her landslide election Wednesday.

That victory and Kumaratunga's choice of her mother as head of government fit in comfortably with the subcontinent's tradition of democracy by dynasty, which often has a strong undercurrent of tragedy and bloodshed mixed in with it.

In Pakistan, the daughter of an executed prime minister has become leader; in Bangladesh, a president's widow is head of government; and in India, a single family has produced three prime ministers: Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi.

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