New look policy | Daily News

New look policy

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn-in as Law and Order Minister before President Maithripala Sirisena at the Cabinet reshuffle held at the Presidential Secretariat last Sunday. (Picture courtesy Prime Minister’s Media Division)
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn-in as Law and Order Minister before President Maithripala Sirisena at the Cabinet reshuffle held at the Presidential Secretariat last Sunday. (Picture courtesy Prime Minister’s Media Division)

The much awaited Cabinet reshuffle finally took place last Sunday but has left in its wake more uncertainty. It has not been the stabilising factor that it was touted to be for the National Unity government which is grappling with the losses encountered at the recent local government elections.

The elections were a loud wake-up call for both partners in the government, the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) because their common rival, the newly formed Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) swept the polls and captured 45 per cent of the vote.

In the aftermath of the election President Maithripala Sirisena assured SLFP parliamentarians backing him that he would initiate “a change that would be felt”. Following this, there were suggestions to remove Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe from office, so as to give the National Unity government ‘a new look’.

Initially, when this was proposed to the UNP with the suggestion that Speaker Karu Jayasuriya be made Prime Minister, Jayasuriya politely but firmly rebuffed the move. Thereafter, attempts were made by SLFP MPs to collect signatures for a motion of no-confidence against the Prime Minister. Obviously, they could not obtain the required number of signatures, so those moves came to naught.

Cabinet reshuffle

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe remained calm in the face of all this and appeared before the media stating that he would remain in office according to the Constitution which has, in the wake of the 19th Amendment, no specific clause where the President can remove the Prime Minister from office.

It was against such a backdrop of political events that the Cabinet reshuffle took place. That it was earlier scheduled to be held on Wednesday last week but was postponed twice until it eventually took place on Sunday indicated that there was much debate, discussion and disputes related to it.

For most observers, the reshuffle was an anti-climax. What was expected was a complete overhaul of the Cabinet, the retirement of a few seniors past their prime and the introduction of young blood. That could have conveyed the impression that the Unity Government was indeed genuine in mending its ways after the verdict from the electorate.

That did not eventuate. Instead, only a few portfolios changed hands and that too only among UNP ministers. The changes in portfolios were also restricted mostly to ‘exchanges’ among ministers. The only new Cabinet minister was Ravindra Samaraweera who has been elevated to Cabinet rank as Minister for Sustainable Development and Wildlife.

Perhaps the most significant change was the appointment of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as Minister of Law and Order, a post earlier held by Minister Sagala Ratnayaka who took oaths as Minister of Youth Affairs and Southern Development instead.

Battle against corruption

In fact, the key ministry of Law and Order was a bone of contention in the lead up to the reshuffle and was one of the reasons why it was delayed. The UNP was keen to appoint Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka to that Ministry. It was argued that being a military man with a track record of achieving his objectives, he was ideally suited to lead the battle against corruption.

The UNP parliamentary group strongly favoured this idea. That was because the feedback they received from their electorates indicated that not dealing with the alleged corrupt activities of the former regime and not bringing its offenders to book was a major factor in the UNP being relegated to second best at the local government election.

Fonseka himself, never shy to state his ambitions made public remarks that if he is given the portfolio he would ‘clean up the mess’ in six months. It is understood that an influential section of the SLFP was against this move and urged President Sirisena against appointing Fonseka to this portfolio.

Following the reshuffle where Prime Minister Wickremesinghe took oaths as the Minister of Law and Order, it was reported that the Prime Minister would hold the portfolio for a few weeks. Thereafter, a new minister would be appointed, these reports said.

Initially, there was speculation that Thalatha Atukorale would be appointed Minister of Law and Order. Atukorale is now Justice Minister as her portfolio of Foreign Employment was assigned to Minister Harin Fernando in the reshuffle in addition to his portfolio of Digital Infrastructure.

However, at a subsequent press briefing, Cabinet Spokesman Minister Rajitha Senaratne was to say that the portfolio would indeed be assigned to Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka. Observers however note that Dr. Senaratne is quite generous with his statements at these briefings and most of his predictions in the past have not become reality.

The other notable but much anticipated change in the reshuffle was the swap of subjects between Minister Lakshman Kiriella, who is the Leader of the House and Minister Kabir Hashim who is also General Secretary of the UNP. Hashim is now the Minister of Higher Education and Highways while Kiriella is the Minister of Public Enterprise Development as well as being Minister of Kandurata Development.

It is no secret that that there has been widespread criticism of the Cabinet reshuffle, despite announcements that more changes are to follow, possibly involving the reshuffling of SLFP Ministers. The Cabinet did not get the anticipated ‘new look’ and there was no infusion of young blood although Ajith P. Perera and Dr. Harsha de Silva were elevated to the rank of state ministers, alongside the sole SLFPer to be sworn-in, Piyasena Gamage who took office as State Minister for Youth Affairs and Southern Development.

Many UNPers were dissatisfied with the reshuffle and two have already said so. The first was the State Minister for Foreign Affairs, Wasantha Senanayake. Leaving the Presidential Secretariat after the swearing -in ceremony, Senanayake said that the first part of a comedy produced by the Government had been enacted and that a second part was due shortly. “I don’t know how people will react, they may laugh, cry or pelt stones,” Senanayake said.

UNP leadership

A day later, State Minister of Skills Development and Vocational Training Range Bandara also stated that the Cabinet reshuffle would not benefit the UNP in any way. Bandara however is fighting his own internal battle in the UNP. He has already offered his resignation as the UNP organiser for Anamaduwa and is now urging for a change in the UNP leadership.

There is speculation within the UNP that a section of the SLFP is only ‘buying time’ by seeking to thwart major changes to the Cabinet such as the appointment of Field Marshal Fonseka as Law and Order Minister. UNPers are concerned that the SLFP’s putsch to oust Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe still continues with the tacit backing of the dissident faction of the party who now form the SLPP.

They note that the Cabinet reshuffle that took place last Sunday will not improve the UNP’s image in the eyes of the public.

In fact, it may have taken a further beating as there is a general public sentiment of dissatisfaction over the reshuffle which amounted to only cosmetic changes between the same colleagues.

At this stage, what is certain is only that there will be yet another reshuffle. Whether that will remedy that perception or lead to more dissatisfaction within the ranks of the UNP remains to be seen. With less than two years to go for the next presidential election, time is running out, not just for the Sirisena faction of the SLFP, but also for the UNP.

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