The Political Column

15th June 1997

Cabinet drama: back to school!

By Our Political Correspondent

After several months of speculation Presi dent Chandrika Kumaratunga finally made sweeping Cabinet changes on Monday, adding eight new faces to make it thirty.

Srimani Athulathmudali, leader of the NDUN (Lalith) F and widow of a slain minister was removed from three important portfolios she held.

The President also sidelined some key SLFPers while paving the way for new faces including her closer confidantes to come into the Cabinet in an apparent bid to strengthen her position in the SLFP, of which her mother is the President.

Critics view the Cabinet reshuffle as yet another broken promise, referring to her pre-election pledge to keep the Cabinet to at a maximum of twenty members.

Ms. Kumaratunga and others while in the opposition had accused the then UNP government of squandering public funds by having 24 ministers, equal number of deputies and a host of project ministers.

Having additional ministers does of course mean additional burdens for the tax payer, who is called upon to maintain a private staff, a security staff and a fleet of luxury vehicles for each minister, in addition to the salary and a string of allowances drawn from the government. The other side of the coin is the increasing complexity of governance and the need to have persons accountable for specific functions.

Political analysts who predicted an imminent Cabinet reshuffle several weeks ago however did not expect the President to make as many as eight new appointments since the PA had promised a smaller Cabinet compared to the previous regime.

But by Sunday night there were indications that the President would make many more than the anticipated appointments to Cabinet rank to the surprise of many, including her own ministers.

By Monday morning all the ministers were asked to be present at the President’s House, except for Srimani Athulathmudali who held Transport, Environment and Women’s Affairs portfolios.

Since Ms. Athulathmudali was not invited to the Cabinet she toured Ratmalana, meeting her supporters and around 9 O’clock she learnt that a terse letter has been delivered to her house.

Just to make doubly sure, President Kumaratunga also sent a copy of this letter under registered cover with her full signature to the Flower Terrace residence of Ms. Athulathmudali. This was received by Ms. Athulathmudali on Tuesday.

After receiving the first letter Ms. Athulathmudali summoned a meeting of the NDUNLF hierarchy which decided that they should not react to the President’s action and should act in a responsible manner.

They later appointed a committee headed by former CWE Chairman Razik Zarook to draft a statement to be issued to the media.

At the meeting many suggested that they should stop supporting the PA in Western Provincial Council but Ms. Athulathmudali said that it was not the time to do so.

Later in the day many ministers called Ms. Athulathmudali to express their sympathy.

Among them were Ministers Alavi Moulana, Dharmasiri Senanayake, D.M. Jayaratne and Lakshman Jayakody.

Some told her that her assistance to the PA was vital and that they would talk to the President about this matter. One visitor had said, “It was a slap in everybody’s face.”

But Ms. Athulathmudali will not react arbitrarily. She is scheduled to take the matter up with the head of the People’s Alliance, Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike.

Not only the Ministers, several opposition MPs also called on Ms. Athulathmudali to sympathise with her. Opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe who telephoned her from London said it was not a surprise and offered her assistance if she needed.

Colombo Mayor and UNP Chairman Karu Jayasuriya called Ms. Athulathmudali while Anura Bandaranaike who called from Nuwara Eliya said, “Don’t regret, the future will be good for you.”

EPDP Leader Douglas Devananda and PLOT leader D. Siddharthan and TULF parliamentary group leader Joseph Pararajasingham also telephoned Ms. Athulathmudali.

Several business people and Ediriweera Premaratne, a one time DUNLF parliamentarian who defected also called her to find out what had happened.

The former Minister said she believed she was dropped from the Cabinet because of her opposition to the continuation of the widely challenged Executive Presidency and her reservations on the devolution package.

Commenting on the manner in which she was removed from the Cabinet she said, “It is something I would not have done.” “This is not a shock to me given the many clashes that took place since I took office. I did my best in the area allocated to me despite the limited resources and other problems.” She dismissed claims that her removal might be linked to her poor performance in the vital Ministry of Transport.

Ms. Athulathmudali also claimed that her removal was a clear violation of the agreement reached between the NDUNLF and the PA. The agreement states:

“Consequent to the many cordial discussions had, between the parties hereto, it is hereby agreed between the People’s Alliance led by Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike and the ‘Lalith Front’ of the DUNF led by Ms. Srimani Athulathmudali that the ‘Lalith Front’ shall contest the forthcoming General Election scheduled for 16 August, 1994 under the common symbol and nomination of the People’s Alliance.

Ms. Athulathmudali’s first act after she learnt that she was removed from the Cabinet was to find out who had been appointed as the Minister of Transport. When she learnt that it was A.H.M. Fowzie, she called him and said that she was coming to bid farewell to the staff.

Minister Fowzie told her to go ahead that he would come there.

While Ms. Athulathmudali was addressing the staff, Minister Fowzie arrived at the Transport Ministry. On seeing him, Ms. Athulathmudali offered the seat to him.

But Minister Fowzie told her that he would take the seat after she finished her speech.

Minister Fowzie himself was not entirely happy with the decision of the President to switch him over to the Transport leaving Health which he held for three years.

At first, Mr. Fowzie refused to accept his new portfolio Transport.

He told the President he did not want the new portfolio and he wished to serve the people as a backbencher. He dropped his set of papers on the President’s table in the presence of officials and others.

Mr. Fowzie then stormed back to his seat where the others were. He told them, “I told her I am not prepared to accept it.”

The President who looked somewhat taken aback after the Fowzie drama, however, continued to administer oaths to other ministers and deputy ministers.

Meanwhile Mr. Fowzie’s Cabinet colleagues coaxed and cajoled him to accept the new portfolio without creating a “big scene”.

Among the ministers who persuaded Mr. Fowzie were Alavi Moulana, Ratnasiri Wickramanayake, Richard Pathirana and C.V. Gooneratne. Finally Fowzie agreed to accept the portfolio. He walked up to the President’s table after the President finished with all the other Ministers and the Deputies who did not utter a word of protest or dissatisfaction over the change of subjects assigned to them.

When Mr. Fowzie came there at last, the President told him she was trying to do something good for him. Mr. Fowzie was told he was given this Transport Ministry since she wanted a good person to handle this important area.

At the beginning of the Cabinet meeting several assistant secretaries went to the ministers and asked them to sign their letters of resignation before they were given the new appointments. Then they were told again to go up and receive their letters of appointments.

All this was done apparently to avoid last minute efforts by disappointed ministers to make some changes.

One minister said it resembled a class room where students didn’t know what was going to happen and the teacher ran the show.

When they were asked to come up, one by one the ministers went up to the President bringing back memories of their schooldays where they walked up to the class teacher to collect their progress reports.

Some ministers apparently knew about their new portfolios only after they came back to their seats. Most of them looked excited.

Apart from Fowzie’s theatrics, the only other drama to an otherwise dull session was when a Presidential aide fainted and fell on a ceramic flower vase, which broke sending flowers all over the marbled floor. Probably the pressure-cooker atmosphere was too much for him. The aide suffered cut injuries from the broken ceramic vase. As some ministers rushed to lift him up new Minister of Provincial Councils, Rural Government Alavi Moulana who was prominent among them got some blood stains on his white tunic.

The President had a word of praise for Mr. Moulana, a longstanding party loyalist and trade unionist. When the President administered his oath the President said Mr. Moulana was a party loyalist who gave much and ask for little.

“After all he is a Moulana” (meaning a descendent of a prophet), she said. The usually verbose Moulana for once was at a loss for words.

The Cabinet reshuffle the President seems to have created more enemies than friends within her own ranks. A number of the ministers are known to be unhappy over the manner she shuffled the Cabinet keeping them in the dark. They all felt they were too senior to be passed over in this fashion.

Some ministers yet feel she should have consulted them before making such a sweeping reshuffle though this would have made the problems worse confounded. But other analysts say the President was bold in her decision to sack Ms. Athulathmudali and change the portfolios of others when she had only a slim majority in Parliament.

They feel the emphatic victory at the recent local elections and the commitment by the minority Tamil parties to stand by the government would have given her the courage to do what she did.

While changing the portfolio of some the President also trimmed the powers of important ministers such as Ratnasiri Wickramanayake, Dharmasiri Senanayake and M.H.M. Ashraff.

Minister Ashraff was relieved of the portfolio of reconstruction while his rehabilitation responsibility was confined to the Eastern Province, a clipping of his wings one might say.

If Mr. Ashraff has been slightly hit, SLMC Deputy Minister Hisbullah has apparently got a worse deal. He has been moved as Deputy Minister of Science and Technology which the SLMC feels is a come down from the genuinely more useful job as Deputy of Posts and Telecommunications.

Minister Ashraff asked the President as to how he could rehabilitate without reconstruction.

He said his rehabilitation work could not be confined to the East since he had started work all over except the North.

The President reportedly told Mr. Ashraff that it was a mistake and she would correct it in due course.

But some political analysts feel the President would not make any change since she made all these changes after a long and protracted study on the performance of each minister.

Thus the ties between the government and the SLMC may be on thin ice.

But the President is also likely to make every effort to keep the Alliance together since she cannot afford to lose anyone after having expelled Ms. Athulathmudali from the Cabinet.

Having made sweeping Cabinet changes the President’s next move would apparently be to consolidate her position in the SLFP. Though the President is the Chief Executive of the country she believes the ruling party is being controlled by people more loyal to her mother Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike.

Hence the President apparently wants to take the reins of the SLFP firmly into her hands to strengthen her power base before the next election.

She reportedly feels she cannot achieve this through the current team of officials headed by General Secretary Dharmasiri Senanayake who is known to be a Sirima loyalist. So the President is perhaps aiming at a change in the party as well.

As an initial step, the President had a surprise meeting with some grassroot level party organisers in Kelaniya. She spoke of the need to reorganise and clean up the party and the country.

She also told some party officials the government could not forge ahead at the pace it wished to because of the slim majority in Parliament.

Her emphasis on the need for the government to be able to assert its authority is seen as an indication that she may call an early general election.

Some ministers and political analysts also believe the recent Cabinet changes were also intended to prepare the stage for early elections.

One minister said, “It is like a war Cabinet,” meaning the people who have been included could bring better results at any election though by what means he did not care to enumerate.

However the President, a student of French politics no doubt, would well be advised to look carefully on the recent developments in France where the Conservative President Jaque Chirac misread the mood of the electorate when he called early general elections. His party was thrown out of office and the President now has to co-habit with the radical socialist party of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.

In a related development the President invited representatives of 25 donor agencies and countries to the Presidential Secretariat for a discussion on a massive new billion rupees rural development blue print. She explained this scheme and asked for a helping hand.

The diplomats and other officials had arrived around 3.00 pm at the secretariat where they were served with tea and refreshments at the canteen.

When it was time to start the discussion all were seen assembling in the meeting hall around 3.30 pm. The officials kept them waiting for nearly one hour.

Finally, the American Ambassador Peter Burleigh with the JICA representative decided to leave the secretariat, apparently dismayed over the delay.

The President turned up only around 4.55 pm to see that half the officials who had come for the meeting had already left. The President profusely apologised for the delay.

Patching up Cooray

In the UNP the Cooray dispute is being patched up through the mediation by the party’s top lawyer K.N. Choksy.

It was the view of Ven. Elle Gunawansa thero, the trouble-shooting Buddhist monk, that Mr. Choksy should intervene to bring about a solution.

Accordingly party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s advisor Milinda Moragoda who was involved in negotiations at the initial stages along with Ven. Gunawansa thero had withdrawn paving the way for one time Minister K.N. Choksy to talk to Mr. Cooray.

Mr. Choksy has met Mr. Cooray several times since last Sunday.

After much persuasion Mr. Cooray has reportedly agreed that the programme for the Premadasa B’day commemoration be prepared jointly by Mr. Cooray, representatives from the UNP and the Premadasa family.

But Mr. Cooray has laid down one condition and emphasised that he was not prepared to meet this group at any venue other than his own house off the Parliament Road.

It is uncertain now as to whether UNP General Secretary Gamini Atukorale or a representative of the family of late President Premadasa would agree to this condition, knowing their sharp differences with the former UNP General Secretary .

Party leader Wickremesinghe who is on an official tour of Britain is being briefed on these developments on a daily basis. As things stand by his Cambridge Terrace men, Mr. Wickremesinghe is likely to attend the Premadasa Centre commemoration meeting at Sugathadasa Stadium, on June 29, probably settling the issue.

Before Mr. Wickremesinghe left for London he spoke to Mr. Choksy in Parliament and told him to sort things out with Mr. Cooray.

Mr. Wickremesinghe said there was no conflict of interest between the Premadasa Centre and the party.

He feels groups such as the Premadasa Centre, the Jayewardene Centre and the Gamini Dissanayake Foundation should work in collaboration with the party and that each should help the other because they all grew out of the UNP.

As a follow up to the mediation Mr. Cooray is scheduled to meet UNP Chairman Karu Jayasuriya and General Secretary Atukorale along with Mr. Choksy over the weekend to resolve some remaining issues.

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