By Rajeewa Jayaweera –
Last week, I wrote about ‘Back to business with same old faces.’ This week is about back to business with the same old ways by our worthy politicians and public servants, despite all that happened during the recent political crisis.
The Supreme Court decreed President Sirisena’s decision to dissolve Parliament as unconstitutional. It resulted in the restoration of Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW) to his previous post of Prime Minister. It was a triumph for democracy in Sri Lanka.
Given the recent crisis, one would have thought the new government would have learned its lesson and move cautiously in the formation of a new cabinet of Ministers besides appointing Deputy and State Ministers (now another category of non-cabinet Ministers have been added).
Last week I wrote of the appointment of Ravi Karunanayake MP as a cabinet minister. It is rumored, Mangala Samaraweera had to threaten to sit with the Opposition to dissuade RW from appointing Karunanayake to the Finance portfolio. Karunanayake was nevertheless appointed Minister for Power and Energy. Despite President Sirisena’s brouhaha over the two Central Bank Bond scams and the appointment of a PCoI, swearing in Karunanayake with scant regard for the commission findings smacks of political expediency.
Another inexplicable appointment is the appointment of Vijayakala Maheswaran as State Minister for Education. She resigned from her previous post of State Minister for Child Affairs in July 2018. During a public meeting in Jaffna, she stated; “Now we remember how we lived before May 18, 2009. In the present conditions, our main intention is to bring back the LTTE. If we want to live, if we want to walk freely, if we need our children to attend schools and return back” in the aftermath of the brutal gang rape and murder of a 17-year-old Tamil school girl. Her solution for preventing the fast-rising crime rate in Jaffna was neither strengthening the Police force or even deploying the armed forces. The revival of LTTE was the solution to this People’s Representative. Both the UNP and Attorney General‘s Dept. are still conducting investigations. The Speaker failed to suspend Maheswaran from Parliament pending investigation but deftly passed the issue to the AG’s Dept. Her reappointment as a State Minister by RW rather than another Tamil politician from the North is an insight to the Prime Minister’s mindset.
A free for all developed inside parliament between UNP and UPFA MPs on November 15. Furniture was broken, objects thrown at the Speaker, blows exchanged, chili powder mixed with water thrown at MPs and UNP MP Palitha Kumara Thewarapperuma, judging from visuals in the press and video footage in social media was seen brandishing an object very similar to a knife. One would have expected the Speaker to have pushed hard for a quick and thorough investigation into such shameful behavior. We now hear of Police seeking statements from 400 MPs, Parliamentary staffers and others who were present that day. Not one single MP has been suspended pending investigation based on available CCTV footage. Meanwhile, MP Thewarapperuma has been appointed State Minister for Social Empowerment. Would an MP be permitted to smuggle a knife to a meeting with the President or into a courtroom?
A one-time proponent of a no-confidence motion against RW, UNP Putlam District parliamentarian Ranga Bandara according to media reports has given an ultimatum expiring next month. He has threatened to make a “Tough Decision” unless he is given a ministerial portfolio, his justification being, he declined a ministerial portfolio and a bribe of Rs 500 million to cross over during the recent political crisis. We are now faced with a situation of politicians demanding gratification for doing the right thing and ministerial portfolios becoming an entitlement.
There are rumblings of seeking an opinion from the Judiciary on the vexed issue of exceeding the constitutionally mandated limit of 30 cabinet ministers. RW and the UNP are desperate to increase the number to 32 to accommodate several opposition MPs waiting to cross over in return for ministerial positions. The argument used is; the President and Prime Minister, despite holding several ministerial portfolios does not fall within the restriction of 30 ministers. RW and his cohorts should understand, if the President and Prime Minister hold ministerial positions, they should be counted as part of the 30 cabinet members. If not, RW should give up his five portfolios comprising of National Policies and Economic Affairs, Resettlement and Rehabilitation, Northern Province Development, Vocational Training & Skills Development, and Youth Affairs and function as Prime Minister as do his peers in the UK, the mother of parliamentary democracy. He could then appoint another for the several portfolios currently under him. Excluding the Prime Minister from the group of 30 can always enable him/her to take on more ministries and appoint an MP for a newly created ministry.
To avoid such ambiguities, one hopes the next constitutional amendment will specifically prohibit both President and Prime Minister from holding any ministerial portfolios.
Not to be outdone, Tamil National Alliance (TNA) spokesperson M.A. Sumanthiran MP has written to the Speaker voicing objections to the appointment of Mahinda Rajapaksa MP (MR) to post of Leader of Opposition (LoO). Contents of his letter have been released to the media. He has listed seven reasons outlining MR’s unsuitability for the post. The main thrust of his argument is that if MR is in parliament as an MP representing the UPFA, he cannot hold the position of LoO due to the fact, UPFA leader President Sirisena functions as Head of Government and holds several ministerial portfolios. He also opines, if MR is a member of the SLPP (Pohottuwa), he ceases to be a member of UPFA and will no longer be an MP under Article 99 (13) (a). Sumanthiran has twisted facts in his letter by claiming President DB Wijetunga did not hold any cabinet portfolios once People’s Alliance government was elected to office on August 19, 1994. He held the post of Defense Minister from May 7, 1993, till November 12, 1994, and did not surrender the post until he relinquished the Presidency. He reluctantly gave up the Finance portfolio on August 31. Col. Anuruddha Ratwatte was appointed State Minister for Defense. Between August 19 and November 12, President Wijetunga was the leader of UNP, President of the Republic, Minister for Defense and Head of a Government consisting of a Prime Minister and cabinet of ministers from the People’s Alliance. Gamini Dissanayake of the UNP functioned as Leader of Opposition for 60 days followed by RW. Ratnasisir Wickremanayale of the SLFP functioned as LoO from December 18, 2001, till January 31, 2002, followed by MR till February 7, 2004. This was during the government of PA/SLFP leader CBK in which RW was Prime Minister and UNP MPs cabinet ministers.
The appointment of TNA leader R Sampanthan as LoO in August 2015 by nature is a greater travesty than MR’s appointment to the post (his unsuitability stems from his abysmal attendance and participation in Parliamentary proceedings rather than reasons espoused by Sumanthiran). Sampanthan’s appointment is based on a technicality of 14 elected and 2 National List MPs being the largest non-governmental group in parliament. The two main alliances UNFGG and UPFA were in a unity government ignoring the fact, 53 of 95 UPFA MPs did not support the unity government and belonged to the Joint Opposition. Consequent to 2015 Parliamentary elections, the number of voters represented by the 53 UPFA MPs sitting in the opposition by far out-numbered the half a million voters represented by TNA which amounts to 4.6% of the popular vote. With UPFA pulling out of the unity government, they as a group now become the single largest opposition group. The post of Leader of Opposition should rightfully be theirs. A President from one party heading the government comprising of members of another party with a parliamentary majority while the President’s own party becoming the main opposition party in parliament is a feature of the Executive Presidential system globally and will remain so unless and until the system is done away with.
Ruwan Wijewardene, one of the younger UNP MPs, assumed duties in his former position of State Minister of Defense a couple of days ago. Those gathered around Wijewardene for the signing ceremony (in this land like no other, assuming duties is ceremony) were; non-cabinet Minister Harsha de Silva, State Minister Eran Wickremeratne, Defense Secretary Hemasiri Fernando, Chief of Defense Staff, Commanders of the Army, Navy and Air Force and Inspector General of Police among others. Considering the important portfolios given to them less than 48 hours previously, does not ministers de Silva and Wickremeratne have more important work to attend rather than hang around the signing ceremony of a junior ministerial colleague? Must the CDS (in full uniform despite being released on bail), forces commander and IGP all turn up at such events? Do they not have more important work their offices? Hanging around ceremonies of politicians is usually a common practice among political lackeys (pandam karayas). It is time we did away with this time-wasting culture of dozens of persons turning up to receive and greet new ministers, deputies and state ministers. As done in the west, the administrative head of the ministry (in this instance, the Secretary) and one other staffer such as Secretary or Office Assistant should be more than adequate to settle in a new person to his/her office.
Nothing seems to have changed. Everything seems to be moving in the same lackadaisical snail pace, and matters in parliament dealt with deviously for political gain.
It is back to business with the same old ways.