Opposition has been growing among the people for over a decade over the huge Cabinets many governments have been appointing since 1990. There have been times when only one or two members of the ruling party were left without ministerial portfolios. The first manifestation of this opposition of the masses was the pressure exerted by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramina (JVP) on the “Parivasa Government” led by Chandrika Bandaranaike in 2001 where the President had to shrink her Cabinet to 25 ministers including the Prime Minister, though it ultimately claimed the life of her government abruptly.
During the Mahinda Rajapaksa government ministerial portfolios were used to break the Opposition political parties and to create an artificial two thirds majority power in the Parliament in order to amend the Constitution as the rulers wished. It again created a fresh wave of opposition against the appointment of jumbo Cabinets ignoring the real need of the country which this time was manifested by the demands by the JVP, Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), the Pivithuru Hetak Movement led by Ven. Athuraliye Rathana Thera and the Movement for a Just Society led by Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera.
The JHU in its political resolutions adopted at its convention on October 19, 2014,amidst the last Presidential election campaign stressed that the Cabinet should be comprised of a maximum 25 ministers and 35 deputy ministers while the subjects for ministries should be allocated on a scientific basis. The Pivithuru Hetak Movement also insisted on the same number of ministers and the JVP stood by its original stance. This stand was accepted by the then Opposition’s common Presidential candidate Maithripala Sirisena and Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and was one of the major promises given by the leaders who campaigned for a government of “Good Governance” during the last Presidential election.
But with the passage of time the concept of “National Government” crept in prompting a need to exceed the accepted number of ministers in the Cabinet. The number of Cabinet ministers was limited to 30 by law for the first time in history by the 19th Amendment to the Constitution that was adopted recently, but it was almost annulled by the succeeding clause on the “National Government” which was practically a carte blanche for future governments.
“National Government means, a Government formed by the recognized political party or the independent group which obtains the highest number of seats in Parliament together with the other recognized political parties or the independent groups,” according to the 19th Amendment. This again provides for jumbo Cabinets in the future when the two major parties decide to collaborate. The pathetic side of the story is that this has been incorporated in the Constitution itself.
The Present government has to be reminded of its professed fundamental ideal or motto ‘Yahapalanaya (Good Governance) when it was preparing for the appointment of the Cabinet and other ministers this week. The number of Cabinet ministers was limited to 30 by the Constitution since all political parties apart from the general public accepted that the government could be run with 30 ministers. If the government is to exceed that number it means such decisions have been necessitated not by the requirements of governance, but by those of political parties and their leaders.
Though it is tantamount to deviating from the yahapalana concept one has to admit that the present composition of the Parliament as well as the degenerated political culture of the country has compelled the Maithri-Ranil government to go beyond the accepted number of ministers. However, it should not go up to a ridiculous point.
The JHU’s position in October that subjects should be allocated to ministers on a scientific basis is very important. That too would help reduce the number of ministers, since the past governments had divided many subjects into several mini subjects just to offer portfolios to members of its own party and the Opposition.