Colombo Telegraph

Cabinet Size & The ‘National Government’ Trap In The 19th Amendment

By Malinda Seneviratne

Malinda Seneviratne

Just the other day, this Government appointed four new Provincial Governors. Almost immediately one of them, who used to be a Governor in a different province, was removed and reappointed to his earlier post.

What is it with this Government and Governors? Not too long ago, the Government appointed a man with a less than glorious track record as the Governor of the Central Bank. When he came under a cloud, the Prime Minister defended him. When he was effectively sacked, he was given ‘other employment’. When he was charged with wrongdoing and ordered to appear in court, those who guaranteed the man would submit to such an order, went silent.

When the above was pointed out, someone quipped, ‘they are good at sacking and appointing judges, though’. That entire process was quite sordid, though.

Anyway, if all this was bad, the circus that the much talked of cabinet reshuffle has turned into is far worse. First of all, following the rout of all constituent parties in the Government at the local government elections, the Ministry of Law and Order changed hands not once, but twice! After the vote on the no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe a bunch of ministers who have resigned.

Then we had the entire Parliamentary Group of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party wanting to quit the Government, followed by the party leader and president, Maithripala Sirisena, urging the bunch to re-think. Now we have the General Secretary of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), a coalition led by the SLFP, saying that even those who supported the no-confidence motion will remain with the Government. Mahinda Amaraweera in an elaboration says that this is ‘to support and strengthen the President’. Note, it’s the President and not the Government whose strengthening is sought here! Meanwhile, a section of the UNP wants to punish those SLFP ministers who ‘betrayed’ by bringing a no-confidence motion against them. Some of these ‘betrayers’ have decided to sit in the Opposition. In other words, the marriage between the UNP and the SLFP is strained (to be generous).

Let us not forget that the President arbitrarily relieved certain key institutions from certain ministries and vested them in others. Let us also take note of whispers that ex-ministers Ravi Karunanayake and Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe are to be rewarded with cabinet slots for support shown during the no-confidence motion. Most importantly let us remember that the Prime Minister or the President or both (most likely the former) have been shuffling the cabinet pack for more than two months now. It looks like their general incompetence is finding expression even in this simple exercise of naming a new cabinet and it’s gravity is made even greater considering the chest-beating assertions about a new government being formed. ‘New’ in terms of a new cabinet.

They key issue here is not coherence, it’s not restructuring or rationalizing. It’s about rewarding friends and buying off enemies. The problem is that retaining a parliamentary majority (note: the government in effect has lost its two-thirds majority) is about holding together 113 individuals whereas ‘holding’ has been reduced to an exercise in appeasement by way of portfolios, if not cabinet minister then at least state or deputy minister posts.

This is where we get to the thorny issue of the ‘national government’. The 19th Amendment had two major flaws; first, the composition of the Constitutional Council which effectively compromises the ‘regaining’ of the independent institutions abrogated by the 18th Amendment, and secondly the caveats pertaining to the size of the cabinet. The 19th limited cabinet size to 30 ministers. The 19th however allows for unlimited expansion where there is a ‘national government’. The architects of the amendment and those who voted for it (only one MP voted against it while one abstained and seven were absent) were complicit in keeping ‘national government’ undefined.

It left us with an as yet unanswered question: what is a ‘national government’? It is ‘national’ if ALL PARTIES REPRESENTED IN PARLIAMENT are part of the government? Is it ‘national’ if the two parties with the largest number of seats form a government? Would it be ‘national’ if one party (say, the UNP) forms a government with a few from the third largest political group in Parliament (in this case, the SLFP)? Would the word be valid for a ‘UNP + one or a few others’ that form a government?

The key issue right now is that this is no longer a SLFP-UNP coalition. It is at best a government made of the UNP, a few SLFP stragglers (note, ‘UNP’ means all those who contested under the elephant symbol at the last General Election). As such this cabinet would be illegal unless we use a very loose and even silly definition for the term ‘national’. If common sense definitions are used, then the size of the cabinet as of today is unconstitutional.

This probably explains why both the UNP and the SLFP are laboring with the cabinet reshuffle. The UNP needs to please more than 30 and it cannot do this if the SLFP doesn’t play ball. Even if the SLFP decides to play ball, the term ‘national government’ would be hilarious if it weren’t an absolutely pernicious twist of the term since the there are at least 70 MPs who are not listening to Sirisena as of now. At the last count (i.e. at the vote on the no-confidence motion), the Prime Minister had only the support of his party and the Tamil National Alliance. A government led by a Prime Minister who is not backed by over 100 MPs is not ‘national’ and not even a perversion of ‘national’.

It is clear that a ‘National Government’ is no longer tenable and perforce cabinet size has to be cut down to 30. Wickremesinghe’s ardent fan club believes the man is a democrat (despite all evidence to the contrary) and a decent politician; yes, some say he’s a statesman. Let’s call the bluff. Let him show that he is. Let him prune the cabinet down to 30.

What he does (or probably will not do) is less important than getting the constitutional flaw corrected. ‘National Government’ needs to be defined so that political machinations by crooks, thugs and self-serving ego maniacs are stumped at every turn, including cabinet reshuffles. That’s more important than seeing some two-bit politician stumble. Agreed?

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Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.

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