Hot on the heels of the swearing in of the new Cabinet of Ministers, deputy ministers and state ministers took their oaths on Wednesday. These appointments, however politically appeasing they may be, raise more questions about the new government’s commitment to ‘good governance’.
At last count, the country has a Cabinet of 48 ministers, 19 state ministers and 21 deputy ministers, making a grand total of 88 ministers in a Parliament of only 225 members. This is only marginally better than the political extravagance displayed by the previous regime led by Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Rajapaksa, master political manipulator that he was, was initially handicapped by a Parliament where he had only a wafer thin working majority. He first engineered cross-overs from the opposition to ensure his survival. Then he exploited them to gather a two-thirds majority to amend the Constitution.
The recent election left no single party with a clear majority but the United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG) could have obtained the support of either the Tamil National Alliance or even co-opted a few handpicked individuals from the opposition to form a stable government.
Instead President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have resorted to forming a ‘national government’ offering ministerial portfolios to both parties. Why the parties cannot work together without offering ministries by the dozen is the question being asked by the public.
The sheer number of ministers is cause for alarm because both President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe campaigned on a platform of curbing the political excesses of the Rajapaksa era and that was less than a year ago. Those slogans have now been abandoned.
It is not only the numbers that are concerning. While the United National Party (UNP) held firm to its pledge of not appointing defeated candidates through the National List, President Sirisena not only did so; he went one step further and appointed several of them as Cabinet ministers as well.
Another frustrating feature is the caliber of politician chosen for office. Positions have been offered to S.B. Dissanayake, T.B. Ekanayake, Susantha Punchinilame, Lakshman Wasantha Perera, Nimal Lanza and Nishantha Muthuhettigama. These are not lily white personalities that inspire confidence.
It is also clear that some portfolios were created simply to accommodate people. For example, there is a Cabinet minister for ‘National Dialogue’ and a state minister for ‘National Integration’! There is a minister for ‘Power and Renewable Energy’ as well as a minister for ‘Fuel and Petroleum Gases’!
The composition of the Cabinet of ministers, ministers of state and deputy ministers is interesting. In the current Cabinet of 48 ministers there are 25 UNP ministers and as much as 19 ministers from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), including those who left the party with Sirisena last November.
Among the 40 state ministers and deputy ministers, no less than 17 are from the SLFP. If UNP parliamentarians are aggrieved, they have every right to be so because they have been relegated to the backbenches, having won an election after languishing for twenty years in the opposition.
What becomes apparent is that President Sirisena is on a mission to gain control of the SLFP. While there is nothing wrong with that per se, in doing so he appears to be placing party before country and discarding all the principles of good governance in his single-minded pursuit of this objective.
Towards this end, he has taken a conscious decision to reward those who were loyal to him. They have been ushered in to Parliament through the ‘back door’ mechanism of the National List even after they have lost at the general election. This has provoked disgust and eroded the President’s credibility.
President Sirisena has also made it a point to woo Rajapaksa loyalists. Hence the offer of Cabinet portfolios to party seniors Susil Premajayantha, Anura Yapa, Nimal Siripala de Silva and John Seneviratne and offering state and deputy ministerial posts to many others in the Rajapaksa camp.
That these matters have irked the public conscience was evident when a fundamental rights petition was filed in the Supreme Court this week claiming that these appointments were a violation of the 19th Amendment, on the grounds that two parties joining forces did not constitute a national government.
Legal arguments apart, these appointments are totally against the spirit of the mandate received both by President Sirisena and the UNFGG at the recent general election. Unfortunately, the UNFGG and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe appear to have been reduced to mere spectators in this exercise.
In swearing in new ministers, President Sirisena was to announce this week that his government would last five years. Indeed the Constitution stipulates that Parliament cannot be dissolved for four and a half years. Whether it will enjoy the goodwill of the public for that long is now a moot point.