Colombo, May 22 (newsin.asia): Monday’s shuffle of cabinet portfolios in Sri Lanka appears to have been triggered by populist feelings about what the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government should be doing in the national interest, which, in Sri Lankan politics some times, boils down to the interest of the Sinhalese-Buddhist majority.
Through the shuffle, President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe are also trying to furbish the lackluster image of their Yahapalanaya or “Good Governance” regime.
There is an underlying fear within the government, that its poor performance has been adding grist to the mill of the Joint Opposition (JO) led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. With local bodies and provincial councils elections likely to be held next year, the government feels an urgency to buck up.
The chief sacrificial goat in the re-allocation of portfolios was the loquacious and proactive Finance Minister, Ravi Karunanayake. The second was the Ports Minister Arjuna Ranatunga and the third was Foreign Minister Mangala Samarweera.
The public as well as the parliamentary opposition had been constantly blaming Karunanayake for the sluggishness of the economy and for the harsh steps the government had taken or proposed to take, to set the country’s messy financial house in order.
Karunanayake had proposed cutting expenditure, increasing taxes and improving tax collection. Though these steps were necessary, the public and the opposition did not like them. The public felt that, while they were being asked to cough up more by way of taxes and put up with less capital or development expenditure, the politicians and MPs were not asked to tighten their belts at all.
Although the Prime Minister and the entire cabinet should have been blamed, Karunanayke was made to bear the cross. In June last year, the opposition even went to the extent of submitting a No-Confidence Motion against him.
However, as the Daily Financial Times pointed out on Monday, Karunanayake cannot be singled out for blame. Most ministries did not perform, it said.
As Karunanayake had pointed out, government ministries had not spent even 50% of what had been allocated to them in the first quarter of 2017. The recurrent expenditure continued to be more than capital expenditure, and 60% of the total allocation was spent on debt servicing.
Perhaps it was Karunanayake’s loquaciousness which was responsible for the public focus their ire on him rather than his other colleagues in the cabinet.
As regards cricketer turned Ports Minister Arjuna Ranatunga, he had been opposing the financial and management deal the Prime Minister (with tacit support from the President) wanted to enter into with China in order to meet the debt repayment obligations in regard to the US$ 1.4 billion non-performing Hambantota port.
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and his cohorts were trying to give 80% equity totaling US$ 1.1 billion to the Chinese company CMPort for 99 years. But Ranatunga wanted this to be brought down substantially. Government then said that the Chinese company’s stake will be brought down to 60% but after ten years. Ranatunga objected to that too on the grounds that Sri Lanka Ports Authority will lose control over a port which is sure to make profits one day.
In Monday’s shuffle, Karunanayake has been shifted to Foreign Affairs, a portfolio which has no power or influence. The new Foreign Minister, Mangala Samaraweera, will be the new Finance Minister.
As Foreign Minister, Samaraweera was popular among the liberals and the minorities but unpopular among the Sinhalese nationalists. The latter felt that he was pandering to the Western world by agreeing to and justifying whatever they demanded.
Some commentators even wanted him sacked and replaced by a “nationalist”. Samaraweera was also combative in dealing with his opponents, which sharpened the conflict.
However, Ravi Karunanayake, Samaraweera’s replacement, is no less “combative” though he has no “reconciliation” or “peace building” background unlike Sanaraweera who was a leader of the Sudu Nelum peace movement during the Presidency of Chandrika Kumaratunga.
Nonetheless, Karunanayake’s performance in the West-dominated forums abroad, especially the UN Human Rights Council, will be keenly watched by the powerful Sinhalese nationalist constituency.
Since Samaraweera is new to finance, the de-facto Finance Minister will be the Prime Minister himself. The speculation is that, to help Samaraweera on a day to day basis, the President will appoint a Deputy Minister or a State Minister with financial experience like banker Eran Wickramaratne or economist Dr.Harsha de Silva.
The removal of Chandima Weerakkody from the Ministry of Petroleum will be welcomed by India as he has been against continued Indian hold over the 99 giant oil tanks in Trincomalee. On April 25, Prime Minister Wickremsinghe got Sri Lanka to sign an agreement with India which stipulated that 84 tanks will be run as an Indo-Sri Lanka joint venture, and ten of these will be for Sri Lanka’s exclusive use.
There was only fresh entrant in the pack of cards – Tilak Marapona, a Wickremsinghe loyalist who was a cabinet minister twice before.
(The featured image at the top show, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe with President Maithripala Sirisena)