Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe with President Maithripala Sirisena in 2015: Maithripala Sirisena’s dramatic victory in the presidential election in 2015 would not have been possible if not for the support of Wickremesinghe and the UNP and civil society. Wickremesinghe after his victory said, “People wanted a change. They did not want a king. They wanted a president and the abolishment of the executive presidency. So we decided to have a common candidate.”
President Maithripala Sirisena submitted a cabinet paper last week seeking the approval to appoint a new National Economic Council (NEC) under his purview to take the key decisions on all the economic and development projects of the government. The president is of the view that the policy decisions have to be made by him.
According to insiders, the NEC will be an advisory body on economic policy in the country to further strengthen the policy coherence in the government. This new body will sit above the Cabinet Committee on Economic Management (CCEM), which is chaired by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
The president had in his proposals in the cabinet paper emphasized that the new economic council must comprise the president, prime minister, finance minister, secretaries to those ministries and selected economic experts only. The president had informed the cabinet that he must be consulted before a final decision is taken on any economic issue and development project before implementation.
The decision on the cabinet paper had been postponed because the prime minister had sought time to further study the cabinet paper. However, the proposal had got the nod. A CCEM has been functioning under the prime minister ever since the government took office.The prime minister’s advisers, R. Paskaralingam and Charitha Ratwatte, are prominent members of the economic council. There’s been criticism from a broad cross section of society that the CCEM has even been usurping the powers vested only in the cabinet of ministers.
The Sri Lanka Freedom Party ministers say that even the president is unaware of certain decisions taken by the CCEM and they want a guarantee from the president that no ad-hoc decisions are taken on the issues which are extremely vital to the country’s interests.
The prime minister has said many times that the CCEM has been able to fast track many of the approvals in record time because of this powerful committee. However, the committee has sometimes been marred with controversy.
The CCEM is a brainchild of the prime minister and has been a key feature in all the United National Party (UNP) governments since the 90s. The CCEM, when resourced well with greater transparency and managed with rigour, has been a great decision-making body to attract investment into the country and to jolt the laid-back administration.
National Economic Council
In the US, the NEC is the principal forum used by the US president for considering economic policy matters, separate from the matters relating to the domestic policy, which are the domain of the Domestic Policy Council. The council forms part of the Office of White House Policy, which contains the NEC and other offices.
The director of the NEC is titled as the assistant to the president for economic policy and director of the NEC. The NEC comprises numerous department and agency heads within the administration, whose policy jurisdictions affect the nation’s economy.
The NEC director, in conjunction with these officials, coordinates and implements the president’s economic policy objectives. The director is supported by a staff of policy specialists in various fields including agriculture, commerce, energy, financial markets, fiscal policy, healthcare and labour.
However, the council proposed by the president is an advisory body on economic policy to further strengthen policy coherence and harness the existing talent of the country for national development. The council however to fulfil its mandate would be required to audit the performance of the CCEM and could become a powerful oversight body for economic management.
Whatever the objectives may be, the failure to distinguish between strategy and tactics is an acute deficiency in this government. Sirisena took a grave and patriotic decision when he left the corruption-ridden Rajapaksas and contested the last presidential election. The country, more than he, was rewarded for such a momentous decision. But that is history now. The people have already forgotten about it.
A more difficult and challenging road is before him and to his constant dismay, he discovered that running a coalition government between the traditional arch-rivals, the UNP and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), is not as smooth as ascending to power.
He must be extraordinarily patient to succeed. The president and prime minister cannot assume power on a ‘partnership’ platform and surround themselves with ‘yes’ men and women and expect to traverse on stormy seas. Of course, the president is the presiding head of the cabinet of ministers, who are de facto and de jure executives of government policies. The UNP therefore must recognize this and give him the space fit in and to operate.
The majority of those who voted for Sirisena at the presidential elections and the UNP at the general elections are palpitating with a tremendous amount of disappointment today for very valid reasons. They cannot be disregarded, for the expectations raised during the campaign were sharper and more cutting in the context of the alleged corruption and nepotism related to the former first family and their kith and kin. Therefore, both need to look forward and work collaboratively to deliver on those promises and to get the country back on track in the way the public is satisfied.
(Dinesh Weerakkody is a thought leader)