The Sunday Leader

New Cabinet To Develop The Whole Country

By Vimukthi Dissanayake

Sri Lanka’s new cabinet was sworn in on Friday, endings weeks of negotiations regarding the formation of the National Government.

While the cabinet has been expanded beyond the originally promised 30 (as was stipulated in the 19th Amendment), for the first time ever under Sri Lanka’s current constitution parliament was given the final authority regarding the expansion.

On Thursday afternoon a debate was taken up regarding the expansion of the cabinet, with the parliament finally voting in favour of expanding the cabinet to 48 Cabinet Ministers, and 45 Non-Cabinet Ministers. This expansion, as argued by the Prime Minister in Parliament, was to accommodate the National Government which was formed with the SLFP.

Sri Lanka has had a history of large cabinet portfolios, with Mahinda Rajapaksa accommodating as many as 61 cabinet ministers and a further 40 deputy ministers during his reign at the helm in the past 10 years.

As of Friday, under the Maithripala Sirisena-Ranil Wickremesinghe led government, the cabinet stands at 41 cabinet ministers, with a further 7 cabinet ministers and 45 non-cabinet ministers to take oaths. The expansion of the cabinet has come under heavy criticism from many sections of society, who have argued that they did not vote for a change in government only to see the new regime follow the patterns of the old one.


What does the Cabinet promise?

Under the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration, the new regime appears to be placing a great deal of emphasis on development of the entire country. The formation of ministries such as ‘Southern Development’, ‘Western Mega-Polis and Urban Development’ and ‘Public Enterprise Development’ all point towards this new direction.

With the Rajapaksa regime having portrayed themselves as developing the post-war Sri Lanka, it is inevitable that the next regime would attempt to outdo their predecessor on that aspect.

However, the new cabinet goes beyond simply a development driven administration, suggesting that a new political culture was also being sought after.

The expansion of portfolios to include ‘Media and Parliament Rehabilitation’ fits in with Wickremesinghe’s announcement that parliament would be re-implementing oversight committees in regards to the ministries.

During the Rajapaksa reign the duties of the parliament had been reduced to a mere vote centre controlled by the President and the Cabinet. However, returning the powers of oversight to parliament is a welcome addition and one that should be closely monitored. UNP MP, Gayantha Karunathileka, (a close supporter of the Prime Minister) has been handed this Ministry. Karunathileka flew under the radar during his time as Media Minister in the 100 days program, but ensured media was given a far greater degree of freedom in their reporting. On this occasion it is expected that a lot more attention will be paid to his work.

Ravi Karunanayake retained the Finance Ministry following a strong showing at the recent elections. Despite certain quarters criticising the re-appointment of Karunanayake, under his tenure during the 100 days, Sri Lanka’s GDP increased to Rs. 912 billion, as opposed to Rs. 857 billion during the same period in 2014.

While Sri Lanka’s economy appears to be stabilising under the new government, the administration has decided that a greater emphasis must be placed on ensuring the state institutions are made more profitable.

UNP General-Secretary Kabir Hashim, has been awarded the Ministry of Public Enterprise Development. Hashim will be tasked with the job of restructuring all state institutions to ensure their businesses are run at a profit.

Included in the list is SriLankan Airlines, Hilton Hotel, all state Banks and numerous other state institutions. At the time of the swearing it is believed that the total number of institutions under Hashim will number as many as 75, making his Ministry the second largest after the Prime Minister’s Policy Planning and Economic Development.


Portfolios for support

As is the case in Sri Lankan politics, certain portfolios have been used to lure across politicians whose support has been wavering. Dayasiri Jayasekara, who was awarded the Sports Ministry, informed media after the ceremony that he had not been aware of being awarded such a portfolio until that morning.

No doubt with Maithripala Sirisena attempting to re-take control of the SLFP, a popular figure such as Jayasekara would be a valuable asset in the Sirisena camp. It was no secret that Jayasekara was unhappy with Rajapaksa’s arrival in Kurunagala during the general election. The Dayasiri-Rajapaksa dynamic failed to materialise as was hoped for by the SLFP brain-trust, with Rajapaksa dominating the vote bank.

Harin Fernando, who has been credited with the UNP’s revival following his strong showing at the Uva Provincial Council election last year, was awarded the Ministry of Telecommunications. With the new government attempting to drive Sri Lanka towards becoming a telecommunication hub of Asia, this portfolio will have a large role in the administration’s future plans.

Fernando, who is the youngest member of the new Cabinet, will be given adequate time in the spotlight allowing him to further strengthen his rise up the political ladder.


Where is women representation?

The representation of women in Sri Lanka’s parliament is a disappointing low this time around despite a public drive to increase women’s participation. Only 13 female MPs were elected to parliament (6% of 225 members), the same number as in 2010. As of now the current cabinet consists of only two women ministers, Chandrani Bandara and Thalatha Athukorale, while Anoma Gamage and Vijayakala Maheswaran are expected to resume their duties as deputy Ministers next week.

Despite the highly publicised drive by the women’s groups to ensure greater participation of women in politics, the efforts have failed to produce results. In fact Gamage told state television on Friday morning that the poor representation of women suggests that a quota system should be introduced to rectify the problem. Despite the low representation of women, Thalatha Athukorale has been awarded the portfolio of Foreign Employment, Sri Lanka’s highest earner of foreign revenue. Her assumption of this post suggests that a greater involvement of women in politics will result in greater degree of influence in the political spectrum.


Compromise for results

The weeks leading up to the swearing in of the new cabinet was marked with numerous backroom negotiations between the UNP and SLFP.

With the knowledge that the SLFP would be joining the UNP, many of the UNPers felt that they would lose out on key Ministerial portfolios.

As it stands the UNP (and its allies) will maintain 33 portfolios while the SLFP will hold 15.

Numerical superiority lies with the UNP at cabinet meetings, ensuring that the SLFP will have little impact on its decision. However, in order to accommodate this advantage Ranil Wickremesinghe was forced to relinquish control over several key Ministries including ‘Power and Energy’, ‘Petroleum and Gas’ and ‘Labour and Trade Unions’.

While on the surface the SLFP would appear to have been played out of ministries, the above mentioned three ministries have the ability to bring the country to a standstill.

Not to be outdone, it appears as though Wickremesinghe has been able to gain one back by retaining control of the country’s finances and police services.

Defence remains in the hands of the President, and with the delaying of the swearing in of deputies it remains to be seen whether or not Ruwan Wijewardena has been able to retain his post as State Minister of Defence.

With over 300,000 members of Sri Lanka’s armed forces under the leadership of Maithripala Sirisena, the Prime Minister will no doubt wish to maintain a semblance of influence through the appointment of a loyal deputy.

With the new cabinet being only 48 hours old, it is too early to decide whether or not they will prove to be a success story. However, one thing is for sure. If the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government is to prosper, a UNP-SLFP co-habitation will have to flourish.

2 Comments for “New Cabinet To Develop The Whole Country”

  1. It is time for us to realize how small our economy and the size of the population. A large cabinet does not make more efficient , this shows the political leaders are there to look after themselves or not having enough knowledge of how to govern in a responsible way.

  2. Leon

    The President seems to be in cuckoos land. How can he develop the country
    with a jumbo cabinet with rogues from previous Rajapakse govt appointed
    as ministers in the cabinet. President was elected to serve the country, not
    to rebuild the SLFP party.

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