Confronting Political Challenges in Domestic and Int’l arenas | Daily News

Confronting Political Challenges in Domestic and Int’l arenas

Last week saw the Government confronting political challenges in both the domestic and international arenas with the swearing in of State Ministers locally and Sri Lanka making its representations to the 51st Session of the Human Rights Council (UNHRC), currently in session in Geneva, Switzerland.

The swearing in of State Ministers had been a subject of much discussion and speculation, prior to the event. It also shed some light on the future political direction of the Government, headed by President Ranil Wickremesinghe but dominated by the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP).

It is no secret that President Wickremesinghe made many attempts to form an inclusive Government, making several public appeals to all political parties calling for an ‘All-Party Government’ to be formed. However, most mainstream Opposition political parties chose not to respond to that call.

That did not deter a several politicians from defying their political parties to join the Government. Two stalwarts from the main Opposition political party, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), Harin Fernando and Manusha Nanayakkara had already joined the Cabinet when Gotabaya Rajapaksa was President.

Also in the Cabinet were two Ministers from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), Nimal Siripala de Silva and Mahinda Amaraweera. They were first appointed by former President Rajapaksa but de Silva was re-appointed, after being cleared of corruption allegations, by President Wickremesinghe.

In such a context there was speculation that attempts would be made to incorporate many State Ministers from parties other than the SLPP. President Wickremesinghe has been successful to some extent in this regard, with several SLFP State Ministers being appointed. Two were from the SJB.

Ministers and State Ministers

An initial list of thirty-seven State Ministers were announced. The list of State Ministers was dominated by those from the SLPP but also saw the inclusion of no less than six Ministers from the SLFP, despite eleventh hour attempts by their leader Maithripala Sirisena to discourage them.

They included Jagath Pushpakumara, Ranjith Siyambalapitiya, Lasantha Alagiyawanna, Shantha Bandara, Dr. Suren Raghavan and Chamara Sampath Dassanayake. Among them, Raghavan was appointed by the party on the National List. Siyambalapitiya was the former Deputy Speaker.

The ‘SLFP group’ in Parliament originally consisted of fourteen MPs. With two Ministers now in the Cabinet and the appointment of six State Ministers, the party is now left with just six MPs obeying the party leadership and opposing the Government, effectively reducing its clout in Parliament.

There is further speculation that when a new Cabinet is eventually announced, Anuradhapura district Parliamentarian and former SLFP General Secretary Duminda Dissanayake may also join the Cabinet. If this does eventuate, that will weaken the party even further and cast doubts about its viability.

The list of State Ministers included two MPs elected from SJB. They were National List Parliamentarian Diana Gamage and Badulla district MP Arvind Kumar. This however was not surprising as both of them had previously pledged their allegiance to the SLPP-led regime.

Gamage was appointed as State Minister of Tourism. The Cabinet Minister for Tourism is Harin Fernando, who also defected from the SJB. It is widely expected that Fernando will join the UNP at the next elections, if not earlier, and is likely to be appointed to a high post in that party.

There were several other State Minister appointments of political significance. One was the appointment of Shashindra Rajapaksa as State Minister of Irrigation. This denotes the first instance a member of the Rajapaksa family has returned to Government following the recent political unrest.

This appointment has in turn fuelled speculation that when Cabinet Ministers are appointed, former Minister Namal Rajapaksa will make a return to the Cabinet. However, the former Minister of Youth Affairs and Sports is said to be considering whether to devote his time to re-organise the SLPP.

Shashindra Rajapaksa’s appointment and Namal Rajapaksa’s potential re-entry to the Cabinet may signal a trend where the older generation of Rajapaksas- former Presidents Mahinda and Gotabaya and former Ministers Chamal and Basil- take a back seat, making way for the next generation.

Also of interest was the appointment of Dr. Seetha Arambepola as State Minister of Health. Dr. Arambepola was part of a group of Parliamentarians that formed the ‘Viyath Maga’, an organisation of intellectuals that was instrumental in promoting Gotabaya Rajapaksa as a Presidential Candidate.

Now however, most of the ‘Viyath Maga’ Parliamentarians have parted ways with the SLPP and formed their own splinter group styled the ‘Nidahasa Janatha Sabhawa’ led by Prof. G.L. Peiris and Dullas Alahapperuma. Dr. Arambepola appears to be the exception to this trend and remains with the SLPP.

Also of note was the appointment of two State Ministers each for some portfolios. Shehan Semasinghe and Ranjith Siyambalapitiya are both State Ministers of Finance. Two State Ministers, Arundika Fernando and Thenuka Vidanagamage, were also appointed for Urban Development and Housing.

Following the initial swearing-in of thirty-seven State Ministers, Premalal Jayasekara was sworn -in days later as the State Minister of Ports and Aviation. This brings the numbers of State Ministers to thirty-eight. There is provision in the Constitution to appoint up to forty State Ministers.

Public reaction to the appointment of State Ministers has been mixed. There has been some criticism of the number of State Ministers as well as the appointment of some specific Ministers. However, it is acknowledged that President Wickremesinghe has to work with the majority party in Parliament.

Austerity and fiscal discipline

Much of criticism regarding the number of State Ministers focuses on the expenses these appointments will entail. Perhaps recognising this, the President’s Office has enforced certain guidelines that will apply to the functioning of State Ministers that aim to promote austerity and fiscal discipline.

This includes curtailing the number of resources such as staff and vehicles allocated to each State Minister. State Ministers will also not be allocated separate ministries of their own. Instead, they will be required to operate from the main Cabinet Ministries of which they will be part of, officials said.

The next, much awaited step is the formation of a new Cabinet. The current Cabinet was originally appointed by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. That Cabinet has been retained by new President Wickremesinghe with the exception of Prof. G.L. Peiris being replaced by Ali Sabry, PC as Foreign Minister.

The Constitution currently provides for the appointment of thirty Cabinet Ministers. Currently eighteen Ministers are in office. Therefore, there is provision to appoint a further twelve Ministers. Reportedly, there is heavy lobbying for these posts from different parties and individuals.

Another issue that was attracting interest in Government this week was the ongoing sessions of the UNHRC in Geneva. The recent political events in the country have come under close scrutiny at the Council where several organisations and groups have expressed strong views in this regard.

“We urge respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including rights to peaceful assembly and expression. We call for accountability for protest-related violence in line with rule of law and equal access to justice,” a statement at the sessions from the delegation of the United States said.

The delegation from the United Kingdom welcomed Sri Lanka’s recent commitments on respect for the rights of those from all religious and ethnic groups, including through political inclusion and constitutional reform. It said it will stand ready to continue dialogue and support Sri Lanka.

In a statement, the European Union said it recognises the challenges Sri Lanka is facing following months of protest and the recent change of Government, while underlining the need of upholding all human rights and fundamental freedoms, especially freedom of opinion and expression of all persons.

Sri Lanka stated its position through Foreign Minister Ali Sabry. Minister Sabry outlined recent events, the current situation in the country and also provided reasons as to why Sri Lanka opposes the UNHRC’s resolution 46/1 which requires international involvement on human rights issues.

“A staff level agreement has been reached with the International Monetary Fund, and discussions on debt restructuring are in progress. The Government is in dialogue with UN agencies and bilateral partners to protect the most vulnerable from the adverse impacts of the crisis,” the minister noted.

“We have highlighted that the content of the resolution, its operative paragraph 06 in particular, violates the sovereignty of the people of Sri Lanka and the principles of the UN Charter. Again, we are compelled to categorically reject any follow-up measures to the resolution”, Minister Sabry said.

After weeks of hectic and at times chaotic political activity, the Government appears to be slowly but surely adopting a more sedate pace with the country gradually returning to normalcy. It is hoped that economic relief measures will also begin to trickle down to the public soon to alleviate hardships.

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