To be or not to be, that was the question about the much awaited cabinet reshuffle. In the end, it was not to be.
A few days prior to the Independence Day celebrations, Minister of Fisheries and General Secretary of the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) Mahinda Amaraweera announced at a public rally that there would be a Cabinet reshuffle shortly.
Thereafter, speculation took over, as it is wont to happen in Sri Lankan political circles. The names of some ministers – some of them holding key portfolios – were being bandied about as being the subject of the reshuffle. There was some anxiety in the corridors of power.
A few days later though, Minister Amaraweera had to eat his own words. Although he didn’t discount the possibility of a reshuffle altogether he announced that it was not a priority for the President and the government at this time.
This government has many firsts to its credit, including being the first time that the two main political parties in the country who have been arch rivals for six decades are governing together. There are problems inherent in that scenario and we acknowledge that. However, this may also be the first time that a cabinet reshuffle was in fact announced beforehand and then, did not happen!
Usually, Cabinet reshuffles are sprung as a surprise and add to the theatre and drama of politics. Ministers are political animals. They are extremely protective about their territory and are very wary about being usurped from their mini empires. Therefore, little is achieved by providing a forewarning about a Cabinet reshuffle.
The political grapevine has it that several UNP ministers were to be reshuffled, including some in high profile ministries. It was reported that the reshuffle ran into snags here. That was apparently because the two parties in the National Unity government, the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) had an agreement whereby each party would mind its own portfolios.
That was an understanding reached by President Maithripala Sirisena and the UNP after the former won the presidential election mostly with UNP votes. Such an agreement was needed for the purpose of forming a government together.
So, even if the President enjoyed the authority under the Constitution to hire and fire ministers as he pleased, he was bound to run it past his Prime Minister. Had he acted arbitrarily, that would have led to a deep division within the ranks of the National Unity government.
Remember 2004? That was when Chandrika Kumaratunga was President and Ranil Wickremesinghe was Prime Minister in a government of the United National Front (UNF). As President, Kumaratunga had to swear in the UNF’s ministers.
In typical Kumaratunga style, she refused to swear in Minister S. B. Dissanayake. As a result, his appointment as a minister was delayed by weeks.
Eventually, the shotgun political marriage between Kumaratunga and the UNF ended. When Wickremesinghe was overseas, Kumaratunga fired three of his ministers and had three of her own party members sworn in as their replacements. Now, that was one heck of a reshuffle!
Having been in Parliament at the time, President Sirisena would have seen all that drama. This time, he decided to play it safe. So, even if he thought a reshuffle was necessary, he did not wish to ruffle the UNP’s feathers too much.
While all that is well and good for the survival of the National Unity government, the more pertinent question is, what would a reshuffle achieve?
Usually, a reshuffle is aimed at either inducting new faces in to the Cabinet or changing personnel in charge of specific subjects so that there is more efficiency in government. The big question is, can that be achieved in this Cabinet?
Although this government pledged to reduce the number of ministers, they are running close to a hundred. The Constitution puts a cap on the number of ministers but this is waived in the case of a national government, so that, restriction does not apply to this government: The result: every ‘nayake’, ‘pala’ and ‘sena’ is a minister!
Clearly, ministers have been appointed with political expediency in mind. For a government that relies on coalitions to retain its parliamentary majority and even larger alliances to sustain a two-thirds majority, it has to please all its stakeholders. After all, as they say, politics is the art of the possible and if that means to hell with a reasonable number of ministers, so be it.
So, what can a reshuffle achieve? Shouldn’t the rationale be that if ministers are ineffective or corrupt or both, they should be removed forthwith? Surely, they should not be shuffled around, so that they are put in charge of a different ministry – less important though it may be – so, they could continue their inefficiency and corruption in that portfolio?
Unfortunately, the very nature of this government is defined by its politics. It comprises of two parties. So, both parties need to be pleased. One party, the SLFP, has two factions and they are locked in a power struggle. Therefore, President Sirisena has to do his best to keep the party together and at the same time ensure that his loyalists stay with him, lest they desert to the waiting arms of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. One does not envy the political tight rope that President Sirisena has to walk.
In such a scenario, what would a reshuffle achieve? Nothing, unless, it meant that more portfolios are doled out to younger political aspirants to secure their loyalty towards the government. Already top heavy with ministers, that is something we could all do without because, in the end, it is the average citizen who pays for their upkeep.
In the final analysis, then, it is good that the reshuffle didn’t happen. Just imagine: a new set of ministers, another ceremony to swear them in and a new series of welcomes in their ministries where they would majestically assume duties in the presence of kith and kin and kavum, kokis and kiribath. Ah, we have had enough of that.
So, thank you, Mr. President, for not doing what many thought you would do, at least for now!