More than one month into office, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is knocking his Government into shape. Gotabaya continuing to appoint the heads of the statutory boards that oversee the implementation of his plans underscores the fact that things are on track in keeping with his wishes.
It is true that every leader, upon election to office, handpicks his or her own people for key posts in the Government. Nonetheless, the present President’s approach is different to those of the former leaders, and he attempts to cut a figure as a non-traditional Head of State.
In the appointment of the chairmen of the statuary boards, he selected qualified professionals, academics and ex-military officers. Most of them were from ‘Viyath Maga Organization’ which, as a body of university dons and professionals, created the platform for the President’s entry into electoral politics. Still it is a departure from the practice followed by many past leaders who chose their family members, friends or retired political colleagues to such positions regardless of their qualifications. In most cases, the defeated political figures were seen calling the shots as the heads of various Government institutions. In fact, such posts were virtually reserved to appease the ruling party politicians who could not get elected by popular vote. If any politician could not get elected to Parliament, a post of chairman awaited him as the next best career option.\
- He selected qualified professionals, academics and ex-military officers
- Sri Lanka has to draw its line in keeping with its traditional non-aligned foreign policy. The port affairs have to be handled with due diligence
President Rajapaksa did away with this practice. So to speak, he has also differentiated himself from his brother Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa as far as such practices are concerned.
The present President expects the heads of statutory boards to be action-oriented and target-minded. Revitalisation of the state institutions is the President’s focus. For example, the appointment of Softlogic Holdings PLC Chairman Ashok Pathirage as SriLankan Airlines Chairman is meant to improve the financial viability of the national carrier without privatizing it.
National security is also uppermost in the President’s mind. So, he appointed onetime Army Commander Daya Ratnayake as Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) Chairman.
The ports are security sensitive places from a geostrategic perspective.
All the major powers have strategic interests in the region.
He would have appointed Prof. Lakshman to support the implementation of his economic vision with a focus on developing local industries
They have competing interests, and Sri Lanka has to draw its line in keeping with its traditional non-aligned foreign policy.
Accordingly, the port affairs have to be handled with due diligence from a security perspective. Gen. Ratnayake’s background as a military officer will help in administering the port affairs and their logistics operations. Gen. Ratnayake has proven himself in the rehabilitation of around 12,000 ex LTTE combatants in the immediate aftermath of the war.
The President has articulated in clear cut terms that the strategic infrastructures such as the seaports, the airports and the expressways should be totally in the hands of Sri Lankan authorities.
Further, in handling the foreign policy of Sri Lanka, the President appears to have taken stock of the Indo-pacific politico- strategy of the world powers in the region. It reflects on his decision to select Admiral Professor Jayanath Colombage as his Additional Secretary on foreign relations.
Admiral Colombage served the Sri Lanka Navy for 36 years and retired as the Commander of the Navy on July 1, 2014.
Upon retirement, the Admiral served as the Director for Indo-Sri Lanka Initiatives and Law of the Sea Centers at the Pathfinder Foundation, which is a premier think-tank and research center, based in Colombo. The Admiral has represented the Pathfinder Foundation and Sri Lanka in many bi-lateral, regional and international fora, presenting papers, participating in panel discussions and chairing sessions on international politics, strategic and maritime security related fields.
As an admiral, he has vast knowledge and experience on maritime security. Alongside, he is armed with academic credentials on international relations. Therefore, he will be able to advise the President on security priorities of Sri Lanka as an island nation of the Indian Ocean in response to the changing environment.
Sri Lanka, as a country, faces threats such as violent extremism, drug trafficking, people smuggling and environmental security threats.
In countering radical Islamic terrorism, India and Sri Lanka have entwined interests. Sri Lanka is seeking enhanced economic relations with China to stimulate growth that has currently flat-lined.
Japan also seeks greater economic and investment cooperation with Sri Lanka. Both India and Japan are skeptical about China’s Belt and Road Initiative. It is a complex situation for Sri Lanka that can be managed with sharp diplomatic skills only.
The President would have given careful thought to such matters in his appointment of Prof. Colombage to guide him on foreign relations.
So to speak, he has also differentiated himself from his brother Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa as far as such practices are concerned
The President is keen to attract investment from the countries in the Asian region in Particular. The countries such as Japan, China, India and South Korea have already expressed their desire to accelerate the implementations of the projects already in the pipeline. Also, there is expression of interest for further investment. So, the President will give foremost place to improve ties with these countries.
The appointment of Prof. W.D. Lakshman as the Central Bank Governor also speaks of the President’s intention on the economic front. Prof. Lakshman who is an Oxford scholar is someone with alternate economic views. The President seeks a radical departure from the neoliberal economic policies. As such, he would have appointed Prof. Lakshman to support the implementation of his economic vision with a focus on developing local industries and restricting imports as a solution to the balance of payment crisis.
However, in carving out a distinct path for governance, the President faces limitations. In the appointment of the Cabinet Ministers, he had to select some from among the traditional politicians. He has no other choice in this regard.
The Government will be able to get into proper shape only after the next general elections. In fielding candidates for the general election, the President will also nominate his people from each district as an effort to build up his team for delivery.
Finally, constituents will decide how they strengthen the hands of the President.