The much-hyped Cabinet reshuffle finally took place on Monday without much fanfare, though amidst heavy speculation that the event was a culmination of rising tensions between the two constituent parties of the National Unity Government. Despite the United National Party’s best efforts to hold on to the portfolios assigned to its members, party leader Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was forced to give in at the last minute, resulting in crucial changes that may make or break the Yahapalana Government over the next three years. Although the UNP did manage to keep its ministries within its ranks, portfolios were swapped between key members of the party as a compromise, raising more than a few eyebrows.
Nine portfolios were reshuffled in total, among both the UNP and the SLFP, with President Maithripala Sirisena remarking that his decision will “provide a new impetus to Sri Lanka’s development.” The relevant deputy ministers are also expected to be reshuffled when the President returns from a three-day state visit to Australia this week.
As expected, UNP stalwarts Mangala Samaraweera and Ravi Karunanayake ended up trading places as Minister of Finance and Minister of Foreign Affairs, respectively, with the former being assigned the additional portfolio of Mass Media. (The media portfolio was previously held by UNP MP Gayantha Karunatilleke who, as of yesterday, oversees the Ministry of Lands and Parliamentary Reforms.)
Many have questioned the wisdom of this particular switcheroo. Although some members of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) side of the Government had been critical of Samaraweera for allegedly taking “unilateral decisions”—inadvertently joining the chorus of ultra-nationalistic voices painting Samaraweera as unpatriotic—as Foreign Minister, he was arguably one of the more competent members of this administration.
Samaraweera, along with his deputy Dr. Harsha De Silva, was instrumental in securing the long-denied GSP+ trade facility for Sri Lanka. His efforts in Geneva also bought Sri Lanka two more years to plan the next move vis-à-vis the controversial UN resolution: a much-needed diplomatic win for the island nation in the face of mounting criticism over a lack of initiative in taking the reconciliation process forward. From a strictly political perspective, too, securing the GSP+ concession will prove particularly crucial for the electoral fortunes of the increasingly unpopular UNP-led government come 2020. (The two-year memorandum of understanding between the UNP and the SLFP is up for review this August).
Samaraweera has also played a pivotal role in the reconciliation efforts of the Yahapalana Government, and some have expressed concern that his removal will mark the beginning of the end of Sri Lanka’s reconciliation project. (An unapologetic peacenik, Samaraweera once spearheaded the anti-war Sudu Nelum and Thawalama projects aimed at setting the stage for a peaceful resolution to the conflict). Others, however, are hopeful that in his new role as Media Minister, Samaraweera will be better positioned to sell the proposed new constitution and accountability to the south. For years, he was an effective Media Minister in the Cabinet of Former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga (though admittedly this was not the best of times for media freedom in the country, and abuse of state media was rampant), and given his experience in media management, Samaraweera will likely prove a valuable asset once again on the propaganda front.
Research Director and Head of Law at Verité Research Gehan Gunatilleke meanwhile, doesn’t believe Samaraweera’s departure signals the end of the accountability and reconciliation project. The main impediment to a meaningful project, he told Roar, has been the Government’s failure to convince the Southern polity of the need for accountability and reconciliation.
“The problem is not one of international relations. So reconciliation cannot and should not be driven as foreign policy agenda by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. International actors will support transitional justice in Sri Lanka only when it aligns with their interests. The more sustainable way to advance the agenda is to secure domestic support,” said Gunatilleke.
He agrees that as Media Minister, Samaraweera is better poised to take the message of reconciliation to the masses.
“Giving Mangala the Mass Media portfolio is perhaps a good move if the Government is serious about winning support for meaningful accountability and reconciliation. Meanwhile, he will most certainly play a role in selling the new constitution to the South. He has a good track record in public campaigns—including the Sudu Nelum campaign under CBK,” he said.
These positives notwithstanding, questions do remain as to his qualifications to run the all-important Ministry of Finance. Samaraweera has never held a portfolio dealing with economic matters, and he has the unenviable task of taking Sri Lanka out of the looming debt trap and working with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on the Government’s reform agenda. In addition to accelerating the reform process, it has been pointed out, Samaraweera as Finance Minister must also work hand in hand with the Central Bank and give more autonomy to institutions handling revenue. Others, however, wonder whether Samaraweera was given the additional job of handling mass media in order to keep him occupied, so that the Finance Ministry can be run from the Prime Minister’s Office in the latter’s capacity as the Minister of National Policy and Economic Affairs.
Social Scientists’ Association (SSA) researcher and co-editor of Pathways of the Left in Sri Lanka B. Skanthakumar finds the coupling of finance and media in one portfolio puzzling. Speaking to Roar, Skanthakumar opined that, as Samaraweera was once before in charge of Media, it suggests he either asked for or was given a subject familiar to him, having been forced to relinquish the Foreign Affairs portfolio which he had clearly relished.
“As he has no previous experience of the Finance brief nor expressed enthusiasm for it, the question that arises is: who will run the Treasury? The possibilities range from bureaucrats including the shadowy ‘advisor’ R. Paskaralingam to politicians in the Prime Minister’s inner circle. The anticipated reshuffle of State and Deputy Ministers may make the identity of the de-facto Finance Minister clearer. Names in the fray include Eran Wickramaratne. In any case, it appears that the Prime Minister is concentrating authority in himself and delegating responsibilities to a handful of his colleagues including the newly re-appointed Tilak Marapana,” he said.
Ravi Karunanayake, on the other hand, was and will likely remain a controversial figure. To say opinion is divided on his tenure as Minister of Finance would be generous, at best. Even if one were to argue that he made the best decisions he could’ve made under the circumstances, or that anyone else in his place couldn’t have done a much better job, there is no denying that Karunanayake has been taking the brunt of the fire and public wrath aimed at the Government. He has drawn the ire of ordinary citizens for, among other things, increase in living costs, with some criticising him for allegedly working against consumer interests.
Despite The Banker magazine naming him Finance Minister of the Year in the Asia Pacific region for his “efforts to steer Sri Lanka into a new era of economic reform and a change of mindset” and his role in securing the USD 1.5 billion extended fund facility from the IMF, Karunanayake has been taking a lot of flak locally for the Government’s alleged mismanagement of the economy. The SLFP side of the Government was particularly vocal at a meeting recently held with President Sirisena, where they made a case for removing him from the Ministry. Not mincing their words, the SLFP group was strongly critical of Karunanayake, holding him responsible for the “perilous state of the country’s economy.” It appears as though the President heeded their warnings, despite any protests from the UNP. (It is no secret that Karunanayake enjoys tremendous influence within the UNP and carries significant clout with the party leadership). And then, of course, there is the question of his suitability to run a ministry as demanding as foreign affairs, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish.
More puzzling are the reports that subjects not previously under the purview of the Foreign Ministry have been assigned to Karunanayake as of yesterday. The Development Lotteries Board, the National Lotteries Board, and the Mahapola Scholarship Trust Fund—which were formerly under the Trade Ministry—are to be brought under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in addition to plantation sector institutions presently under a different ministry. A secretariat on a national level and a new fund are also expected to be set up under Karunanayake, reportedly in line with a decision taken by the President and the Prime Minister to “carry forward Sri Lanka’s foreign policy with an economic vision.” Stranger still, the crisis-riddled national carrier SriLankan Airlines will also reportedly be brought under his purview.
Left-leaning economist Ahilan Kadirgamar believes that changing up the Finance portfolio without any shift in policy is not going to make much of a difference. “The economic policies of the Government, including the role of the Finance Ministry, have been disastrous over the last two years. The country’s economy has been moving from crisis to crisis, caught in a debt trap, and heading towards the fire sale of state assets. The Government and the Finance Minister should take responsibility for successive failed Budgets,” he told Roar.
“A change of Finance Ministers without a significant shift in economic policies will not change the situation of the crisis-prone economy. There is an urgent need to stop the current liberalisation trajectory, including by restricting certain imports as well as reversing financialisation, including the expansion of capital markets and greater capital flows. Instead, there should be greater stimulus for the rural economy, to reduce agricultural imports and increase rural incomes,” he added.
Samaraweera and Karunanayake weren’t the only controversial appointments at yesterday’s reshuffle. Former Ports Minister Arjuna Ranatunga was removed and given the Petroleum portfolio. Ranatunga had raised concerns over Government plans to cut a deal with China to develop the loss-making deep sea port in Hambantota, and speculation is rife that this was the reason for his removal. SLFP-er Mahinda Samarasinghe, who is considered more amiable, has been put in charge of Ports. He assumed duties last morning at a ceremony held at the Ministry premises, attended by, interestingly, a smiling Ranatunga.
Tilak Marapana, a senior UNP-er with a sketchy past (he was among three UNP ministers sacked by then President Kumaratunga in November 2003), has been taken back into the fold as newly appointed Minister of Development Assignments. Marapana previously held the portfolio of Law and Order, but was forced to resign following questionable remarks he had made during a parliamentary debate on the controversial Avant Garde deal—a company in which Marapana served as a legal counsel. Though pro-Rajapaksa commentators have dismissed the appointment as being merely nominal, civil society members have criticised the attempt to bring him back into the Cabinet.
On the SLFP side, UPFA Secretary and Fisheries Minister Mahinda Amaraweera has been rewarded with additional duties as State Minister of Mahaweli Development, with S. B. Dissanayake getting Social Empowerment, Welfare, and a somewhat confusing Kandyan Heritage portfolio. Senior SLFP-er W. D. J. Seneviratne has been appointed Minister of Labour, Trade Union Relations and Sabaragamuwa Development, while Chandima Weerakkody has been named Minister of Skills Development and Vocational Training.
President Sirisena, it appears, is confident that he has made the right call in shifting the Ministries around, and it is expected that the move will bring a temporary halt to the brewing conflict within the Government. However, reactions have been mixed, at best, and questions remain regarding the point of it all. As if to illustrate this, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna yesterday said that it will seek legal advice on the reshuffle and to ascertain whether it has gone beyond the provisions set out in the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.
The Daily Mirror quoted JVP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake as saying: “If the reshuffle was done to fulfil the people’s expectations of getting rid of corrupt politicians, then former Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake [among others implicated in various scandals] should have been removed [from the Cabinet].”
What is clear is that this week’s Cabinet reshuffle was a politically motivated one rather than an attempt to give a fresh start to Sri Lanka’s development agenda by assigning the right portfolio to the right minister—although, at least in the case of one of the ministries, most Sri Lankans will agree, change can only be a good thing. With just three years left to go, amidst mounting economic woes and an increasingly boisterous Joint Opposition constantly upping the ante electorally, ably exploiting the growing rift between the two main parties, one wonders whether these theatrics will really amount to anything in the end.