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The Cabinet reshuffle: No real takeaways


Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Friday, 2 March 2018 00:00


Events, as they say in politics, have conspired to force the President to reshuffle his Cabinet, to sharpen Government and to shine. President Sirisena and the Prime Minister had decided to reshuffle the Cabinet of Ministers to manage the fallout after the recent election.

Many new faces were expected to be appointed to Cabinet, with a few changes to existing portfolios. The public wanted a thorough shake-up. Their message after the LG elections was loud and clear. Changing a few ministers would not serve that purpose. 

After three years in office, some ministers had delivered and some lack ideas and had become stale, detached and complacent. Some were simply out of their depth. Sadly the much-anticipated Cabinet reshuffle proved to be an anti-climax with just a few changes being effected and these too only with respect of a few UNP Ministers. 

Despite the full Cabinet of Ministers being invited for the event, only six Ministers, two State Ministers and a Deputy Minister were sworn in before President Maithripala Sirisena at the President’s Office. The rest of the UNP Ministers retained their portfolios while the future of the UPFA Ministers will remain unknown for a further two weeks. 

President Sirisena however made it clear that there would be major changes in the subjects gazetted under each ministry. So far the changes are insignificant and short-sighted. Many expected General Fonseka to take over Law and Order at least at non-Cabinet level to give a fresh lease of life to law enforcement in the country. That too did not take place.

Disappointing 

The questions raised after Cabinet reshuffles are not unexpected. After all, Cabinet reshuffles are an intriguing affair. At least for one thing, they demonstrate the power of the Head of State. Perhaps, this is only one decision – the other being the date of the general election that he is expected to decide on his own, consulting only the Prime Minister and very close associates, if at all. 

Interestingly, reshuffles therefore tend to be highly-secretive affairs, thus adding to the fascination. Even in the case of a modest change. Often the people who are promoted to ministerial rank are told only on the day itself. The other reason for wide interest is that, more often than not, Cabinet reshuffles are heavily laden with hidden motives and agendas. 

The public expectation of President Sirisena’s proposed reshuffle was to get the Government to change direction and to inject fresh hope. It was not done with realism and pragmatism expected, therefore it has led to further uncertainty within the Government.

Need for strong leadership

It is often said that the Cabinet in most countries wields tremendous power and authority. However in Sri Lanka, despite the recent amendments, the President still wields substantial power and authority, and few nations in the world have power so highly-concentrated in one office as in Sri Lanka. 

It is a sobering thought that the man at the head of the Cabinet, i.e. the President, has the sole responsibility and discretion finally of deciding who belongs to it. This is how most governments work today.

Strong leaders have of course made a big difference, for example Singapore under Lee Kuan or Britain under Margaret Thatcher. Both demonstrated very clearly that without discipline and structure, a country goes nowhere. 

Ideal democracy never produced results. However, what is equally very important is to have very strong and pragmatic men and women preferably educated with a commitment to national service in the Cabinet to advise the Prime Minister or the President, and in some instances, to act as a foil. 

Needless to say, in the end, the only valid reason as far as the public goes to change a Cabinet line-up is to strengthen it or inject new life, for the benefit of the country. In this case, the overall ‘reshuffle’ was far from a complete overhaul talked of in political circles – especially after the President and Prime Minister vowed to take very bold and far reaching steps in view of the embarrassing defeat of the UNP as well as SLFP at the Local Government elections. 

What a shame both leaders did not make use of the opportunity define the issues in their own terms to the Opposition.

Conclusion 

Though the coalition to many looks in shambles, it is not all gloom and doom. Sri Lanka had its first primary budget surplus in 2017. The improvements in the economic climate have been reflected in the sovereign ratings by Fitch and Standard & Poor as they upgraded from a Negative to a Stable Outlook.

Sri Lanka’s external sector had performed well with exports reaching $11.4 billion, 10% more than that of 2016 and higher still than the previous best of $11.1 billion in 2014. Therefore whatever that has been achieved so far should not be squandered over political misgivings. 

The way out of this political stalemate is for Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to take careful steps in dealing with President Sirisena, leaving sufficient space for the latter to understand the ground reality. Ranil needs to adopt a model that is based on discipline (someone telling what to do) rather than allow many (who invariably are not the best) who are incompetent. 

If any of our leaders can sell that to the masses (not the intelligentsia only), then we get some discipline in our society (which needs to be shaped like Lee Kuan did with the mass of the Singaporeans). 

The current leadership at the helm has to reinvent itself to be trusted once again with a fresh mandate. So far its record of broken promises, weak governance, judicial ineffectiveness and above all, tolerance of financial scandals has largely betrayed the confidence that people placed on the regime. The alternative leadership that is challenging the current one also has a past with even more baggage. 

As a result of all this young people are now looking for new alternatives to carry the nation forward with a clean slate. Therefore if serious steps are not taken to rectify the errors that in part led to the disappointing election result, the result at the next provincial elections will be the final nail in the coffin. Because is not possible to win elections without hard work and solid results!

(The writer is a thought leader.)


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