By Rajan Philips –
The sweet feelings that arose after the Supreme Court’s two rulings last week turned sour this week with the spectacle of cabinet making. The President kept grabbing headlines with his diatribe after the swearing in, and his own alleged swearing at some point during the event. No one is going to be upset anymore with what the President does or doesn’t do. The real disappointment is Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. There was universal expectation that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe will show something inspiring and different this time in comparison to his previous efforts at cabinet making. No one was expecting to see all new faces in the cabinet given that it is still the same parliament with the same old faces. But quite a few people were expecting that they will not see some of the old faces return to the new cabinet.
Many UNPers and others who protested against the sacking of Wickremesinghe and the dissolution of parliament did not want to see Ravi Karunanayake back in cabinet in any portfolio. Malik Samarawickrama made a gallant show of volunteering to stay out of cabinet and even received complimentary hugs for his gesture, if not sacrifice. As it turns out, both men are in the cabinet as are almost all the old faces. The people rallied, parliament voted and the judiciary intervened to stop the illegitimate return of Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister. But there is no power apparently in Sri Lanka that could stop the highhanded return of Ravi Karunanayke (RK) as cabinet minister. Cabinet appointments are left to two individuals, the highest in the land: the President and the Prime Minister, but neither man could stare down RK and show him the door. Chandrika Kumaratunga might have done it, but that is beside the point.
That Mr. Karunanayake was not given the finance portfolio is supposed to be the concession to honesty and good governance. It ought to be, on the contrary, everyone’s consternation that he was even allowed the temerity to make a claim for finance. Mangala Samarweera had to threaten that he will otherwise sit with the opposition in parliament to stop Karunanayake from getting his coveted finance portfolio. Even the lesser reward as Minister for Power and Energy and Business Development is expected to include the state banks as a signing bonus. We are supposed to appreciate the thinking behind bringing the banking and energy sectors together in Karunanayake’s new portfolio – to facilitate lines of credit to what are essentially Sri Lanka’s debt trap corporations. We can only pray that the state banks will all not vanish in a penthouse smoke.
Cabinet size and content
Most of us were not born when Sri Lanka began its odyssey with parliamentary democracy and cabinet form of government in 1947 – with a cabinet that had only 18 ministers. Some of us read later from Jennings that DS Senanayake actually wanted the cabinet size to be reduced and wanted it written in the (Soulbury) constitution. He was advised against it by colonial authorities that it would be impractical to reduce the size of cabinet given the multiple responsibilities of a modern government. The size of cabinet increased gradually but not unreasonably over the next thirty years from 1947 to 1977. Even today, neighbouring India and Pakistan have only 27 and 21 ministers, respectively, at the national level, even though they are much larger countries and more complex polities. The not so distant comparator Malaysia manages with 28 ministers, and the Prime Minister’s ideal state Singapore has only 19 Ministers.
The explosion of cabinet size in Sri Lanka is a direct result of the 1978 Constitution and JR Jayewardene’s experientially disastrous attempt to marry his idiosyncratic presidential system and the island’s pre-existing parliamentary system. In his new constitution, President Jayewardene gave himself and his successors plenty of powers to buy votes in parliament by rewarding MPs with an assortment of cabinet and non-cabinet ministerial positions and perks. The purpose is to maintain a parliamentary majority for the President by bribing MPs across party lines with half or full cabinet positions. Every President has used these powers successfully with the exception of Maithripala Sirisena. He too tried but without success, and then wailed publicly that the asking price for crossovers has become too much.
The number of ministers swelled to 70 under Mahinda Rajapaksa, and with the addition of deputy and state ministers almost half the parliament became an assembly of half and full ministers. The 19thAmendment limited the cabinet size to 30, but a way around it was soon found through the contraption of a national government. After the end of that fiction in October the 30-minister limit is back, but god knows for how long. While there is a constitutional limit on the size of the cabinet, there is no constitutional provision or guidance regarding not only the qualifications but also the disqualifications to be a minister. And invariably, the quantitative explosion in cabinet size has brought forth a qualitative implosion.
Last chance or lost opportunity
Ravi Karunanayake disqualified himself to be a minister when he became the central political figure in the Central Bank bond scandal. He was forced to leave cabinet, and what has requalified him since to be allowed back in cabinet? It is widely surmised that Mr. Karunanayke has a huge IOU to cash with the UNP for organizing financial support (from whatever shady sources) for the party over several years, and that he has built up a strong electoral base in Colombo North apparently due to cardinal blessings by the Catholic Church. Such blessings, if true, seem to extend further north to Negombo, where the ageless and the spiritually peerless John Amaratunga constantly gets to keep his position in cabinet. One would have thought that such considerations will not be given the same weight as in the past, in the aftermath of the democratic surge over the last seven weeks and more.
Further, if Ravi Karunanayake and others like him are loyal supporters of Ranil Wickremesinghe, why wouldn’t they make it easy for their leader by staying out of cabinet contention when they know that by their presence in the cabinet they become a national liability to the party and its leader? They may have their established vote base, but in the heightened public mood of today they run the risk of turning away larger numbers of neutral voters who may at best decide not to vote at all, or at worst hold their nose and vote for the Rajapaksas. The bigger question is why doesn’t Ranil Wickremesinghe assert himself in making cabinet selections and make the best possible selection for the government and the country? And why does he have to plead with his party members to voluntarily forego cabinet positions and then create positions even for those who volunteered to give up their cabinet positions?
From DS Senanayake to Mahinda Rajapaksa, no previous Prime Minister or President has been held hostage by anyone while making cabinet selections the way Ranil Wickremesinghe appears to be in dealing with Ravi Karunanayake’s cabinet claims. President Jayewardene kept Cyril Mathew in his cabinet disregarding universal appeals to expel him, but more as a hired gun than due to any insistence by Mr. Mathew. There were fears that if Mathew was fired there would riots on the streets. But when Cyril Mathew was finally let go from the cabinet, “there was not a bloody hum on the road”, remarked Dr. Colvin R de Silva. Sir John Kotelawela and Mrs Bandaranaike took on formidable personas like GG Ponnambalam and NM Perera and fired them from their cabinets, even though the dismissals on both occasions turned out to be huge political miscalculations. In 2003, Chandrika Kumaratunga dismissed three of Ranil Wickremesinghe’s ministers without a hum, and the following year dismissed Mr. Wickremesinghe himself as Prime Minister.
In the light of all this, it is reasonable to ask what hold does Ravi Karunanayake have on Ranil Wickremesinghe when it comes to cabinet making? And why did not President Sirisena refuse to swear in Ravi Karunanayake the same way he refused to admit Sarath Fonseka to the cabinet?
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is a “lucky bugger”, as Kumar David professorially ranked him (last Sunday), to get his last chance to prove himself a successful Prime Minister and the last opportunity to win a national election as his party’s leader. The question is whether Mr. Wickremesinghe will turn his last chance into a positive opportunity for the first time in his political career, or if he will let it turn into another lost opportunity as he has always done in his entire political career.
Mr. Wickremesinghe seems to be forgetting that he not is starting a post-election government with the relative luxury of a long mandate. Rather, he is heading a pre-election government on a tight leash and he needs a cabinet that is nimble, efficient and able to make targeted deliverables, in a very short time, in a few crucial areas: the economy, prosecuting crimes and corruption, and constitutional reform. He has renewed his promise to abolish the executive presidency, but even he doesn’t know when or how he is going to do it.
The making of the cabinet was his first chance to show that his reinstated government is different from and better than its earlier version that was dismissed on October 26. Ravi Karunanayake’s return as a cabinet minister has shown the very negation of it. The betrayal will be complete, again, if the cabinet size is increased to accommodate more than thirty ministers through another constitutional chicanery.