Enormous challenges before new Cabinet | Daily News

Enormous challenges before new Cabinet

The newly elected government has begun its task of charting the course of the nation, with the appointment of Cabinet ministers and State ministers and Parliament being convened for the first time by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa yesterday in a simple but stately ceremony.

The appointment of the cabinet was awaited with great interest, given the pledges made by President Rajapaksa during his election campaign to create a new political culture. The ministerial appointments that have been announced consisted of 26 Cabinet ministers and 39 State ministers.

Following the appointment of Cabinet ministers and State ministers, other appointments have also been finalised. Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena is the new Speaker while Ranjith Siyambalapitiya will be his deputy. Jaffna District MP Angajan Ramanathan will be the Deputy Chairman of Committees.

Also being announced was the appointment of Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella as the new Cabinet spokesman. Pivithuru Hela Urumaya leader and Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila and Plantations Minister Dr. Ramesh Pathirana will also function as Co-Cabinet spokesmen.

The reduction in the number of ministers to 26 has been commended, even by the President’s critics. The previous Government had ministers numbering up to 40 when Parliamentarians from both the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) were sworn in as ministers.

It must be noted that the Government, though it won a sweeping majority at the August 5 election, returned 145 seats- five short of the 150 required for a two-thirds majority in its own right. However, there are five or more MPs from smaller parties which support the Government to make up 150 seats.

There had been speculation that the Government would offer some portfolios to these parties to ensure an iron-clad two-thirds majority. It could have used the Constitutional provision that allows for a ‘National Government’ by entering into a ‘coalition’ with even one of these parties, to do so.

That would have allowed the Government to increase the number of ministers significantly, thereby accommodating all parties and factions within the ruling the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), the SLFP and other smaller political parties that support it. President Rajapaksa has not done that.

Even for a Government that is formed by a single party, the Constitution allows for up to 30 ministers. However, the President has resisted that temptation and appointed only 26 ministers, sending a clear message that, given the majority he enjoys, appeasing political concerns was not among his priorities.

However, there appears to be some underlying political considerations in the allocation of ministries and ministers. What is apparent is that those who have stood by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa when he was defeated at the 2015 presidential election have been rewarded for their loyalty.

Thus, those who aligned themselves with him, formed the core of the Joint Opposition (JO) and helped in mobilising support for the formation of the SLPP have been given pride of place. Others who allied themselves with former President Sirisena and joined his government have been relegated.

As a party, the SLPP has received the lion’s share of portfolios, with 19 of the 26 ministers being from that party. The SLFP received only two portfolios which went to party senior Nimal Siripala de Silva and former United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) General Secretary Mahinda Amaraweera.

Five leaders of parties allied with the SLPP have received Cabinet portfolios. They are Dinesh Gunewardena, Wimal Weerawansa, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Douglas Devananda and Udaya Gammanpila. There was no portfolio for Lanka Samasamaja Party (LSSP) leader Tissa Vitarana.

Former President Maithripala Sirisena was the most conspicuous absentee in the Cabinet. There was speculation that he would be given the Mahaweli Ministry or another high-profile portfolio. Sirisena, who was present at the swearing-in ceremony for the ministers in Kandy, did not receive a ministry.

This was followed by speculation that the former President would be considered for the position of Speaker. However, that position went to Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena. As it stands, Sirisena will be a backbencher in the Government- unless another high-profile position is being considered for him.

Several senior SLFPers who held important portfolios in the previous Government headed by then President Sirisena have been sidelined. These stalwarts include S.B. Dissanayake, Susil Premajayantha, John Seneviratne, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and Mahinda Samarasinghe. Among the key portfolios, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa retains the Finance Ministry. Similarly, Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunewardena and Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi have retained their ministries. SLPP Chairman G.L. Peiris has been appointed as Minister of Education.

The most notable new entrant to the Cabinet is Ali Sabry, PC, who was sworn in as Minister of Justice. Minister Sabry had a high profile during last year’s Presidential Election campaign and had been President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s legal counsel in many court cases, in the lead up to the campaign.

In that period, in the immediate aftermath of the 2019 April Easter day terrorist attacks by Muslim extremists, Sabry had been a strong voice in calling on the rest of the Muslim community to eschew terrorism and join in a process of national reconciliation involving all communities.

The Easter attacks have been a subject of much scrutiny. Former President Sirisena ordered an inquiry which was followed by an inquiry conducted by a Parliamentary Select Committee. Now, another Presidential Commission of Inquiry is conducting its own investigations into the incidents.

Against such a backdrop where prosecution of the terrorists involved is the most likely outcome, appointing a Muslim minister of Justice has been considered controversial by some but President Rajapaksa has indicated that he retains faith in his former legal counsel to do an impartial job.

Minister Sabry who entered Parliament through the National List is also the only professional to be inducted directly in to the Government, evoking memories of how G.L. Peiris and Lakshman Kadirgamar were included in the Cabinet by former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga in 1994.

Peiris was an architect of the truce with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Kadirgamar played a stellar role as Foreign Minister and was instrumental in having the LTTE banned overseas. Arguably, President Rajapaksa expects a similar noteworthy contribution from his Minister of Justice.

Other relative newcomers to the Cabinet are Prasanna Ranatunga and Ramesh Pathirana. Both are heirs to family political ties, being sons of former ministers Reggie Ranatunga and Richard Pathirana respectively. However, both were ministers in the Cabinet appointed prior to dissolving Parliament.

Included in the Cabinet for the first time is a third generation Rajapaksa, Namal Rajapaksa. He was appointed as the Minister of Sports and Youth Affairs. Thus, Namal Rajapaksa and Ramesh Pathirana become the only MPs among their contemporaries to be elevated to Cabinet rank.

It was reported that former Minister of Justice Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe was offered a state minister’s position but that he declined the offer. As a result, the reputed lawyer who has switched political allegiances between the SLFP, the UNP and the SLPP lost out on being appointed to any office.

Interestingly, two General Secretaries of the SLFP, Dayasiri Jayasekara and Duminda Dissanayake have been offered state ministerial portfolios for Batik, Handloom Fabrics and Local Apparel Products and Solar, Wind, Grid Power Generation Projects Development respectively.

Three other professionals been rewarded for their contributions in other fields. They are Former Central Bank Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal, Sarath Weerasekara and Nalaka Godahewa. Godahewa and Weerasekara topped the preference votes in the Gampaha and Colombo districts respectively.

The titles of some state ministers have come in for criticism and led to amusing posts on social media. This is because they are extremely descriptive in nature. For instance, Prasanna Ranaweera has been appointed as State Minister of Cane, Brass, Clay, Furniture and Rural Industry Promotion.

In an apparent response to this criticism President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has said that the creation of these ‘unorthodox’ state ministries was to pave the way for a people-centric national economy so that they would be its stakeholders. Hence the descriptive nature of the titles of state ministries, he said.

President Rajapaksa made this observation at the first in a series of meetings to review the portfolios and responsibilities of state ministries. The first to be assessed was that of the State Ministry of Batik, Handloom Fabrics and Local Apparel Products where Dayasiri Jayasekara is the State Minister.

There has also been criticism of the appointment of some ministers and state ministers because of their controversial histories, some of them being charged with various offences in the past and others identified with unruly behaviour in Parliament. With the former however, none had been convicted.

Former President Kumaratunga has vented her frustration at the SLFP being sidelined in the appointment of the new Cabinet, being reduced to two Cabinet portfolios. However, it is clear that that loyalty to the SLPP cause has been a key criterion in the allocation of Cabinet responsibilities.

The new Government was voted in with an unprecedented majority. Voters would therefore have high expectations that they would deliver on their promises, especially in these trying times.

The new Cabinet and President Rajapaksa have significant challenges and onerous tasks lying ahead of them.