By Rajeewa Jayaweera –
The 52-day drought without a legitimate government which began on October 26, 2018, has finally ended. With the swearing-in of Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister last Sunday and a 29-member Cabinet of Ministers four days later, a functioning government of sorts is now in place.
Judging from media reports, most newly appointed Ministers have rushed to assume duties. One would wonder, in their haste to get into their ministries, if at least some of them abandoned their customary practice of consulting astrologers for auspicious times, which they usually do before embarking for any important event or journey.
A leading English daily, on Friday, in their front page, carried photographs of the Prime Minister and 28 Ministers. Despite close scrutiny, not a single mug shot could be found of an unknown or unfamiliar face. They all belong to those who held ministerial positions before October 26. Besides, the publication also carried pictures of seven MPs who had been rejected by the President which includes that of the Field Marshal.
There is speculation of exceeding the Constitutional restriction of 30 cabinet ministers through various means. One could be by enticing UPFA/SLFP MPs to cross over and to call such an unholy combination a ‘National Government.’ As things happen in this land like no other, it is even possible, the single SLMC MP joining up could be construed a National Government purely to overcome the restriction, but it would not help in bridging the shortfall to reach the magical 113 MPs required to govern comfortably.
Even though the TNA could be considered in desperation, joining the government would not suit the group’s game plan. Staying outside the government and extracting their pound of flesh as and when their support is required by the government to further their agenda would be more to their advantage.
The recent imbroglio galvanized the urban population, both young and middle age groups alike as never seen before. These people, though small in numbers were not the servile types who genuflect to politicians. They are not the types who paste posters and hang flags for politicians with the expectation of employment for which they do not have the necessary qualifications. They are not the types who attended political rallies at the behest of politicians and are rewarded with a packet of rice, a bottle of arrack and a small amount in cash.
They are employed in the private sector and/or professionals, who turned out in numbers to register their opposition. Many such persons took to the streets. They gathered at places such as Independence Square to express their anger to the appointment of Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister, and the dissolution of Parliament, which the Supreme Court subsequently ruled was a violation of the Constitution. The horrors of the Rajapaksa era, especially the 2010/15 period are obviously not forgotten. The announcement of the appointment of the former CEO of the national carrier SriLankan Airlines as its Chairman is a case in point. He is tainted with allegations of corruption and presently under investigation. Mercifully, sanity prevailed, and the appointment was rescinded in less than 24 hours. However, the incident may have been a sign of what to expect, had Rajapaksa continued in office.
There were other groups too who turned up at public rallies to express solidarity with Ranil Wickremasinghe, the UNP and register their opposition to the President’s conduct. They turned up in massive numbers in places such as Lipton Squarer. In fact, Wickremesinghe and the UNP did not draw such massive crowds since they were elected to office in August 2015.
All these groups who came together did not do so for want of a better alternative to spend their time. They were already burdened with the high cost of living and fuel prices. But they were shocked of the manner in which President Sirisena, one Friday afternoon, stealthily replaced a sitting Prime Minister and replaced him without as much as an ‘if you please.’ The autocratic act visibly disturbed most urban dwellers.
In the appointment of the new cabinet of ministers, what Wickremesinghe has done is to kick all these people in their teeth with scant regard for their expectations.
The newly appointed cabinet of Ministers does not contain any young and new blood from the crop of UNP MPs. The appointees are the same old faces as before.
The cabinet consists of at least two members aged over 75 years. Could not these two gentlemen have been replaced with two young UNP backbenchers if not the likes of Eran Wickramaratne and Harsha de Siva? The MP who resigned under pressure in the aftermath of the Central Bank Bond Commission findings has returned in true Westminster tradition where it is normal for Ministers resigning on the grounds of misdemeanors to be reappointed after a brief interval. With the UNHRC review around the corner in March 2019, the Foreign Minister who acts more like a part-time Foreign Minister has been appointed again. At least three former Ministers who pompously declared two days earlier they would step aside to enable Wickremasinghe to accommodate some others in the cabinet have all deviously managed to creep into the group of 29 Ministers.
The bottom line is, the Prime Minister, in his usual style, has once again acted with little or no regard for public opinion. Whereas the Supreme Court with their verdict resolved the vexed issue and the anti-Rajapaksa groups in Parliament remained steadfast in their demands, it was the public that kept up intense pressure in the streets which also played a vital role in restoring him to the office of Prime Minister.
Enticing MPs Vijith Wijayamuni Zoysa, AHM Fowzie, Piyasena Gamage, Lakshman Seneviratne, Indika Bandaranaike and Manusha Nanayakkara with ministerial positions is not the solution to the government’s problems. To do so would amount to the prostitution of democracy. The answer is to endeavor to function as a minority government. If that does not work, a resolution could be passed in parliament with a 2/3 majority co-opting other parties to dissolve parliament and request the people for a fresh mandate to govern. That is what democracy is about.
In as much as President Sirisena has muddied his copybook since October 26 and is at the bottom rung of the popularity ladder, he is not down and out. He could claw back some of his lost stature by adamantly refusing to swear in any MP crossing over, as Ministers, thereby at least temporarily suspending the disgusting practice of political defections at least till such time an anti-defection bill becomes a reality.
The mandates given by the people on January 09, 2015 as well as in August 2015 have been squandered. Let not the verdict of the apex court of December 13 go waste.
Public opinion must be heeded. Wickremesinghe must realize, he and his government cannot get back to business as usual and ignore all that has happened. To do so stubbornly would no doubt have serious consequences.