Events, as they say in politics, have conspired to force President Maithripala Sirisena to reshuffle his cabinet, to sharpen the government and to shine. Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe decided to reshuffle the cabinet of ministers to manage the fallout after the recent election.
Many new faces were expected to be appointed to the cabinet, with a few changes to the existing portfolios. The public wanted a thorough shake-up. Their message after the local government elections was loud and clear – work and deliver your promises. 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 anticlimax with just a few changes being effected and these too only with respect of a few United National Party (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 Sirisena at the President’s Office. The rest of the UNP ministers retained their portfolios while the future of the United People’s Freedom Alliance ministers will remain unknown for further two weeks.
Sirisena however made it very 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.
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 the ministerial rank, are told only on the day itself.
The other reason for wide interest is that more often than not, the cabinet reshuffles are heavily laden with hidden motives and agendas. The public expectation of 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 a 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 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 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 the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, at the local government elections. What a shame both leaders did not make use of the opportunity to define the issues in their own terms to the opposition?
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 US $ 11.4 billion, 10 percent more than that of 2016 and higher still than the previous best of US $ 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 Wickremesinghe to take careful steps in dealing with Sirisena, leaving sufficient space for the latter to understand the ground reality. Wickremesinghe 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 it is simply not possible to win elections without hard work and solid results.
(Dinesh Weerakkody is a thought leader)