When the brief but sombre private swearing-in ceremony ended last Sunday, President Maithripala Sirisena made sure those from his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) proceeded to an upper floor at the Presidential Secretariat. There, a worried looking Sirisena said he bestowed the much-talked-of Law and Order portfolio on Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The Premier, he [...]


Ding-dong battle continues between the two coalition partners

Last Sunday’s Cabinet reshuffle seen largely as cosmetic exercise; Tug of war over proposed appointment of Fonseka as Law and Order Minister - Sirisena meets Rajapaksa for talks; President wants CCEM scrapped, but PM and senior UNP ministers urge its continuation

When the brief but sombre private swearing-in ceremony ended last Sunday, President Maithripala Sirisena made sure those from his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) proceeded to an upper floor at the Presidential Secretariat. There, a worried looking Sirisena said he bestowed the much-talked-of Law and Order portfolio on Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The Premier, he said, would hold the position only for a short period.

This is whilst military strongman and Minister Sarath Fonseka, who was away in Indonesia, was widely touted to hold the position. Upon his return, he anxiously began looking for staff for the new ministry. When he met Wickremesinghe on Tuesday, the Premier, who was backing his appointment, explained that top level Police officers were opposed to his appointment. An angry Fonseka was to accuse some of them, DIGs, as smugglers and drug peddlers who should be in jail.
The next day (Wednesday), Fonseka met the President to discuss his appointment. Sirisena made clear it was not possible to appoint him. Once again, Fonseka was angry. Outside the President’s residence at Paget Road, he told those present that he was seeking the post not for himself but to do a service to the country. He had wanted to clean up the Police Department and deal with those who were corrupt.

The Fonseka saga is not over. Wickremesinghe has so far written five letters to Sirisena. He is to now tell the President that his United National Party (UNP) and “the public at large” want Fonseka in that job. This is whilst politicians of different hues and organisations are speaking out in Fonseka’s support. During meetings with Sirisena after the reshuffle, accompanied by UNP General Secretary Minister Kabir Hashim, the Premier raised issue again. Kalpana karala balamu or let us think about it, was Sirisena’s reply. The meeting was to discuss how to move forward with the Government now that they have chosen to go it together. However, it is extremely unlikely that Sirisena would agree. “He has made up his mind not to have Fonseka as the Law and Order Minister,” a high ranking official source said. Yet, a change of mind, as demonstrated many a time during recent political events, leaves some serious doubt. He may relent under pressure, said a distraught SLFP Minister who did not wish to be named.

Sirisena gave no explanation to the bemused SLFP audience last Sunday why the much awaited ‘major’ Cabinet reshuffle ended in just a ‘minor’ shake-up. It was like the proverbial mountain labouring to bring forth a mouse. In this instance a tiny one. Ironically, there were rewards to those whom Sirisena warned he would deal with. The public who had expected Sirisena to carry out his assertions for change made in different rallies for the local polls were disappointed.

Yet, Sirisena’s about-turn and the remarks he made to SLFP Ministers, Deputy Ministers and MPs bared his uneasy predicament. His local polls campaign centred on fighting corruption. Days before the event, he vowed he would not work with those corrupt. Even to the most dim-witted, it was clear the reference was to frontliners of the United National Party (UNP). What made him change from fighting them to joining hands with rewards to work together again? The once confident Sirisena, who wanted to exercise powers of the executive presidency, and use a ‘sword’ in the execution of his promise, has morphed into a weaker position and projected an even weaker image. The exact reasons for the sudden shift may not be known, not even to political analysts. However, the backdrop in which events unfolded gives a glimpse into his actions and food for thought.

President Sirisena swearing in Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as Law and Order Minister also though it will be provisional.

Envoys of two countries, each powerful in its own way, called on Sirisena separately before the Cabinet re-shuffle. These were countries which did not favour the Rajapaksa administration and helped ensconce Sirisena in power in 2015. After his election, they assisted the new dispensation in many ways. Their projects took root and more were in the pipeline. The envoys were explicit that they did not in any way want to tell Sirisena what to do. Yet, they sounded a note of strong caution. They made clear their serious concerns about the collapse of a Government which had won the people’s mandate for five years. They also made clear their respective Governments would find it difficult to co-operate with a new regime if the current disposition they had backed was not in place.

Added to it was a meeting Sirisena held earlier with Rajavarothayam Sampanthan, leader of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). The TNA leader reminded Sirisena of the pledges made by him to make Constitutional changes to address Tamil issues. He had also referred to the ongoing United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) sessions in Geneva and the consequences that could flow to the country if there was a change in Government. The United States backed resolution (co-sponsored by Sri Lanka) is due to come up for discussion.

In the light of this, the Government has been making hurried preparations. A seven member Office of Missing Persons (OMP) has been appointed with attorney-at-law Saliya Peiris as chairman. The choice was made by Sirisena. Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana ordered the cancellation of a transfer order sent by a top Foreign Ministry official asking Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva, Ravinatha Aryasinha to return to Colombo. This was on a directive from an angry President Sirisena who was told that the recall was when the UNHRC sessions were to take place. Minister Marapana also spoke on the telephone to Aryasinha in Geneva to ask him to ignore the recall order and stay behind.

Heart burns in reshuffle
Despite the reshuffle, changes are still to be made in some of portfolios assigned last Sunday highlighting how indecisive the leaders of the Government have become. This is besides a shake-up of SLFP ministers due anytime now. In fact, they had come ready to take their oaths last Sunday. At least one Minister, who found himself in what he thought was a less important ministry protested strongly. He argued that he was to be penalised for no fault of his. Sirisena thought it could be handled within two weeks, after he finishes assigning subjects to the new (UNP) Ministers sworn-in.

If last Sunday’s episode and the events that followed were the close of a chapter barring some changes due, there was another opening. Pro-Sirisena SLFP members continued their on-off dialogue with a group of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) members on forming a new Government under President Sirisena. At issue were a number conditions from the SLPP. Most of these centred on economic policy where the SLPP sought a shift from the UNP Government’s liberalisation programmes. One such issue was what the SLPP called the sale of public assets. As the dialogue went on, President Sirisena himself had been keen this week to seek the help of Basil Rajapaksa, the principal strategist for SLPP to hurriedly expedite matters.

Attempts to contact Basil
Telephone calls from both Sirisena and his brother Dudley to Basil Rajapaksa went unanswered. Rajapaksa told a leading Buddhist prelate that he was all in favour of forming a Government. However, he said, he had not wanted to answer the phone calls since the Government formation would have to be handled by the ‘Joint Opposition’ and the SLFP. “The SLPP technically has no representation in Parliament. This was by no means a discourtesy (towards the President and other SLFPers),” he told the prelate. Rajapaksa is also now being wooed by Colombo’s diplomatic community. This week, he had a two hour long meeting with the new Chinese Ambassador Cheng Xueyuan.

Sirisena’s volte face has painted himself to a corner. Earlier efforts, both formally and informally, to re-unite with the rival factions in the SLFP have not borne fruit. To make it worse, his Minister Susil Premjayantha, who was the front runner to form an SLFP Government found there were not enough numbers of MPs for the overthrow of the UNP-dominated Government. He claimed he was able to muster only 102 names though his colleagues flatly disputed the figure. While some UNP MPs are possible cross-over candidates, the UNP seemed certain it will not be one-way traffic. And now, contrary to his previous boastful stance, Premjayantha continues eating humble pie as Minister of Science, Technology and Research. Pay and perks are too good for any minister to just dump his or her position though contradictory public statements have become a hallmark of such politicians. The diplomatic caution that was delivered and the other added developments seem to have taken a toll. So Sirisena, with no choice, not only relented but seems to have taken a step backwards. He now waits until his arch enemies before February 10 decide whether or not to help him. Help would mean another move to oust Premier Wickremesinghe whilst no help would amount to further isolation and working with the UNP.

It is significant that Sirisena had a one-on-one meeting with Rajapaksa where the current political situation formed the subject of discussion. Rajapaksa told the Sunday Times “we met two weeks ago at a non public place.” He, however declined to divulge details.Secrecy shrouds Sirisena move.

In the past three weeks, the political goings-on have been shrouded in mystery. Sirisena, who pledged transparency during his election campaign, neither summoned his customary news conference nor address the nation. He continued the practice of a blanket secrecy by asking his staff not to allow the media to cover live the swearing-in either. The media coverage of the 35-minute ceremony together with a ten-minute speech by Sirisena, was limited to official television footage and still photographs that were only released after the event. Periodic news releases containing the names of one or two ministers then sworn-in were the sop for media coverage of such a public event. Being a Sunday, a larger number of Sri Lankans who wanted to see it live on television were disappointed.

The news blackout is understandable from the President’s stand-point though not commendable. He had, after all, asked Premier Wickremesinghe to step down from his post, but instead swore him in as Law and Order Minister, while remaining Prime Minister. He was compelled to acknowledge his Premier deserved another subject, though temporary. That was in marked contrast to blaming him for the loss at local polls. To say the least, it was an embarrassing moment for him. This was after removing Sagala Ratnayake, a close confidant of Wickremesinghe and Chief of Staff at Temple Trees. Ratnayake who was in charge of the Police (as Minister of Law and Order) was accused of leaking information to the Rajapaksas about the investigations against them, an accusation he vehemently denied. The switch came in for severe criticism in political circles since, in the past, the actions of the duo closely complemented each other. They feared it would continue even now, as Chief of Staff, Ratnayake works closely with the Premier. The former Law and Order Minister was, however, assigned the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Southern Development. Piyasena Gamage, who had brushes with the Police when he was Deputy Minister of Law and Order was made Ratnayake’s deputy. His appointment raised eyebrows in view of his age, 69 years, on the grounds that a younger person should have been named for youth affairs.

Other than the switch in the portfolios of Lakshman Kiriella (now Public Enterprises and Kandy Development) and Kabir Hashim (Minister of Higher Education and Highways), there was no noteworthy change. That again is if it could be considered noteworthy. A new comer Ravindra Samaraweera, a Badulla District UNP parliamentarian, was sworn in as Wild Life and Sustainable Development Minister, leaving only Buddha Sasana for Gamini Jayawickrema Perera. If Sirisena had sought a shift in Kiriella’s portfolio since last year when Ministers Mangala Samaraweera and Ravi Karunanayake exchanged Ministries, there seems a paradoxical situation. A Gazette notification to be issued any time now will bring under Kiriella’s purview the multi-million dollar Central Expressway Section 3 project from Potuhera to Galagedera via Rambukkana. This is the biggest ever highway project in the country. If Sirisena intended to take away highway projects from Kiriella, which was his stated public complaint, he has rewarded him now. That makes the reshuffle a farce. Details of latest developments related to the new project appear in the later paragraphs.

Thalatha not happy
Re-assigning the portfolio of Foreign Employment, held earlier by Talatha Athukorale (also Minister of Justice) was to spark a controversy. She did not attend the swearing-in ceremony. She had objected to the Foreign Employment Bureau being taken away and appealed to President Sirisena first. He had declared that the matter would have to be sorted out with her own party. She had then made representations to Premier Wickremesinghe. He had asked that Athukorale speak to Malik Samarawickrema, UNP Chairman who was involved in choosing ministers. He had declined her request to retain the ministry. Earlier, Wickremesinghe had asked her which of the two subjects she wished to have — Road Development Authority or Foreign Employment Bureau.

She had said she would take any one of those but her original request, she complained, had been ignored. The Ministry of Foreign Employment was placed under Harin Fernando who is Minister of Telecommunications and Digital Infrastructure as well. He had said prior to the local council elections that he was certain of defeat in his district because he was unable to give employment to anyone in the three years they were in office. Athukorale is to receive another portfolio in addition to Justice though it has not been decided what it would be.

Here again, it reflects the thirst for politicians wanting portfolios where jobs can be given and the Government’s indecisiveness.
There was a similar situation when two UNPers were sworn-in as State Ministers. This was after it was found that they could not hold positions as non-Cabinet rank ministers in accordance with the Constitution. They had earlier been told they would hold such ranks. Harsha de Silva, who once sought the replacement of his leader, was appointed State Minister for National Policies and Economic Affairs. Ajith P. Perera was sworn in as State Minister for Prison Reforms and Rehabilitation.

Even before the swearing-in ceremony ended, Perera complained to some of those present that he had been ‘demoted.’ Later, he insisted that he should also continue to have his previous position in addition – Deputy Minister of Power and Renewable Energy. Asked for his response, Perera told the Sunday Times, “There are several changes taking place both within the party and regarding cabinet subjects. I do not want to, therefore, make a comment at this point.” Also appointed as Deputy Minister of Home Affairs was J.C. Alawathuwala, Kurunegala District UNP parliamentarian.

Crisis over CCEM
In the midst of a Cabinet reshuffle, Sirisena had some bad news for Wickremesinghe at Tuesday’s weekly ministerial meeting. He said the Cabinet Committee on Economic Management (CCEM) should be wound up. The CCEM set up on September 23, 2015, meets every Wednesday at Temple Trees and is chaired by the Premier. All matters related to economic development including foreign investment are discussed and decided upon by it. Thereafter, only the minutes of the CCEM decisions, which are sketchy and brief, are forwarded to the Cabinet for endorsement. They often contained only “the decisions taken” and did not give fuller details. This prompted SLFP Ministers to dub the CCEM as a parallel cabinet. More often than not, ministers approved the CCEM decisions without knowing fuller details or by glossing over material before them.

One such case took place on July 5 last year when the decisions taken at the 74th meeting of the CCEM were submitted by Premier Wickremesinghe for endorsement by the ministers. A document titled Updates to the National Physical Plan June 2017 was among those tabled. This contained the National Physical Planning Policy. Dealing with major infrastructure projects, particularly road networks, the document included a map of China’s One Belt One Road project but carried no comment. It is not clear from the document whether the intention was to link China’s OBOR to Sri Lanka’s road network. OBOR is development strategy proposed by the Chinese Government and it focuses on connectivity and cooperation between Eurasian countries.

At the ministerial meeting Sirisena embarrassed Wickremesinghe by producing a catalogue of decisions taken by the CCEM which were non-productive. One case in point he stressed at length was the setting up of a so-called Volkswagen factory in Kuliyapitiya. He said it turned out there was no involvement by Volkswagen though CCEM had granted approval. Even he had been misled into taking part in the opening ceremony. Wickremesinghe explained that Volkswagen was experiencing financial difficulties and hence delayed the project. However, the German car manufacturer not only denied formally that it had no plans for a project in Sri Lanka but also withdrew its agency from a businessman who was associated with this so called project. This was to give rise to jokes that the ‘investment’ was for a hoax-wagon project. As reported last week, Sirisena earlier told a meeting of the National Economic Council (NEC) that all decisions of the CCEM should be channelled through the Council.

The call by Sirisena to disband the CCEM did hurt the UNP leadership. A four member delegation led by Premier Wickremesinghe and including Ministers Malik Samarawickrema, Mangala Samaraweera and Kabir Hashim met the President on Thursday. They appealed to him to permit the CCEM to continue to function. In fact, its meeting on Wednesday took place with Wickremesinghe in the chair. Sirisena declared that he would consider their representations and would make his decision known.

UNP Minister Rajitha Senaratne also told the ministerial meeting that there were inordinate delays when matters went before the CCEM. He later told Wednesday’s news briefing “There was a major discussion (at the Cabinet meeting) regarding CCEM. This was because it takes time for a decision to be taken. We decided that all our development projects should be completed in the next one and a half years as in the last six months nothing is going to happen. If we were to complete them in one half years, how do we do it? We will need to select the projects that immediately concern the people.

“The next was how we reduce the time taken to make decisions. There were two suggestions: One was to scrap the CCEM and send all memoranda to the Cabinet and thereafter if necessary appoint a Cabinet Sub Committee. By this, delays could be avoided. The other proposal was to take all national level major projects to that Committee and bring the smaller decisions directly to the Cabinet. The Prime Minister too agreed to this. What happens now is that all projects go to that Committee and only thereafter come to the cabinet. It takes time. There was agreement on this. However, a decision will be taken in future as to what the major projects are.”

As Minister Senaratne points out, in the past many decades, the Cabinet of Ministers only forwarded memoranda for discussion at the weekly meeting. On issues which were considered complex, ministers decided on a Sub Committee comprising some of them. Such a body studied the issues involved and reported back to the Cabinet for final approval. A departure came under the yahapalanaya (good governance) Government when a Cabinet Committee on Economic Matters (CCEM) was established, of course with the approval of the ministers. Sirisena now wants it disbanded. Either he has realised three years into his office that it has become a parallel Government by itself or he wants to clip Wickremesinghe’s wings.

One of the two key players involved in the CCEM exercise is R. Paskaralingam, a former bureaucrat who was invited back from London to take the job. The octogenarian was a right hand man of late President Ranasinghe Premadasa and was his Finance Ministry Secretary. The other is Charitha Ratwatte, a close associate of Wickremesinghe who functions as Economic Advisor, also a former Treasury Secretary (2001-2004). Some of the procedures followed by the CCEM also came in for criticism. In one such instance, it was the CCEM that invited former Chinese Ambassador Xi Xianliang and urged him to ask companies in his country to bid for the Hambantota Port. The result has been a new deal with China. The previous one was under the Rajapaksa administration when loans were obtained from China for the project — a move that forced the Government to incur vast amounts as huge loan repayments. Though the new project has led to the generation of foreign exchange, the process that denied bidders from other countries has remained an issue.

Range-Bandara episode
It is in this backdrop that there is uneasiness for Wickremesinghe too in his own United National Party (UNP). Palitha Range Bandara (UNP – Puttalam District) declared that he would move a vote of no-confidence against Wickremesinghe as the leader of the UNP. The move appears to be a futile ill-informed exercise. Firstly, there is no provision in the UNP Constitution (2010) to remove the leader. There is, however, provision, to deal with “any member or officer who acts in contravention” of the party constitution. In such an instance, it is the party’s Working Committee which is required to appoint a committee not exceeding ten members “for the purpose of attending to all disciplinary matters.” The Working Committee is appointed by the party leader, in this instance Wickremesinghe, and has a majority of his staunch backers. With those statements Range Bandara has opened himself for disciplinary action from his party. He was avoiding the media yesterday. His grouse appears to be non-elevation to the rank of a minister. He told television channels that the Districts of Puttalam, Polonnaruwa and the Chilaw electorate had no UNP minister represented in the Cabinet. Yet, moves by a section of the SLFP to win over a group of UNPers are causing much concern at the highest levels of the UNP. There are fears of an unidentified number veering away.

Despite the political pressures on him, Premier Wickremesinghe has, contrary to the report on this page last week, won conditional approval for “awarding the contract for the construction of Central Expressway Section 3 (CEP III) from Potuhera to Galagedera via Rambukkana.” The move coincides with a visit to Japan by President Sirisena next week. According to the minutes for the ministerial meeting on February 20, the Cabinet noted that “the construction of the Central Expressway is an acutely felt need.” The approval is subject to adherence to stipulations laid down by the Ministry of Highways. Among other matters the ministers examined “further clarifications by the Prime Minister and Minister of Highways and Higher Education at this meeting” and views “expressed by the Minister of Megapolis and Western Development and several other members of the Cabinet.” In terms of the minutes the contract will be awarded to Taisei Corporation of Japan pending the signing of the loan negotiated. It also decided to commence “necessary preparatory works for the immediate implementation.”

It must be borne in mind that the cost of the road project is 100 billion Japanese Yen or more than US 936 million. The cost of the entire Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport was US$ 270 million. This makes clear three such airports could be built with the money involved. In stating this, the idea is not to down grade road development in congested Kandy area but to demonstrate the enormous costs involved and to point out that it would add to the country’s debt burden. The other, which was raised at the ministerial meeting, was how the project was placed in terms of national priorities and whether it was an ad hoc move. The same argument was brought forth by members of the ruling party over the Hambantota Port Development project.

With a reshuffle of SLFP ministers due and a few changes to those made last Sunday, the woes do not seem to be over for either President Sirisena or Premier Wickremesinghe. Sirisena has to now take a final decision on whether the CCEM would continue and on what basis it will be allowed to do so. Wickremesinghe who has resisted moves so far to oust him as Prime Minister will continue with his pleas to have Sarath Fonseka installed as the Law and Order Minister. That he (Fonseka) is an archenemy of the Rajapaksas, who jailed him, is not lost on Fonseka. If appointed, unlike Minister Sagala Ratnayake, he would put military-style pressure on the Police over pending investigations. And that would further distance Sirisena whose party members are still talking to Rajapaksa loyalists about forming a new Government. It would further isolate the President who remains cornered. Thus, the ding-dong battles between the two coalition partners will continue as they claim to rule as a yahapalanaya Unity Government. The more Cabinet reshuffles are made, the more they remain the same.


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