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This is my Nation  


 


Growth drive on track

New cabinet set to push President’s development goals

President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi, first lady Gursharan Kaur attend the closing ceremony of the XIX Commonwealth Games at Jawarharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi

Current indications are that at least three personalities - Lakshman Seneviratne, A R M Cader and Rauff Hakeem will be given ministerial portfolios. In addition, senior parliamentarian Sarath Amunugama, who sacrificed his portfolio in the previous re-shuffle, will also be elevated to Cabinet rank. The inclusion of SLMC leader Hakeem will be a noteworthy achievement for the President

The government this week announced that the inauguration of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second term of office will be held in Colombo next month. Elaborate preparations for this are already being planned with just over a month to go for the event.
But, even more elaborate plans are being drawn up to fashion the President’s team of Cabinet ministers for his second term, a crucial issue if the government is to really forge ahead with its plans to develop the country towards its stated objective: ‘the miracle of Asia’.
In his first term of office, President Rajapaksa, despite all the powers at his disposal, did not have the political wherewithal to do as he pleased.
That is because he was saddled with a Parliament elected in 2004, where the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) had only a slim majority.
In fact, the UPFA could not elect its nominee –
D E W Gunasekera - as Speaker.
On more than one occasion, the budget was passed after high drama and suspense.
The threat of the opposition engineering defections that would bring down the government always loomed large.
With the presidential and general elections held this year, the political landscape has changed significantly - and some would argue, irrevocably.
The President now has not only a clear advantage in Parliament but also a two-thirds majority that allows him to engineer changes to the constitution.
In such a context, the advantage snowballs towards the President.
We saw that happen when the government attempted to pass the 18th amendment to the constitution.
As it had a near-two-thirds majority, it was not difficult to entice opposition members to make up the numbers - and even some more.
So far, President Rajapaksa has been extremely astute as a politician.
His credo seems to be that if anyone could be used as an ally, he should be.
That explains why Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Champika Ranawaka, Wimal Weerawansa and Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan (Karuna) are all with the President.
Another political trait of the President which has stood him in good stead is that he has always stood by those who supported him and rewarded them for their loyalty.
And, chances are that this will be put into practice once again when the new Cabinet is chosen a few weeks from now.
The President will be keen to secure - and not endanger - the parliamentary majority that he harvested in the wake of the 18th amendment.
And among those who crossed over are senior parliamentarians from the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC).
Current indications are that at least three personalities - Lakshman Seneviratne, A R M Cader and Rauff Hakeem will be given ministerial portfolios.
In addition, senior parliamentarian Sarath Amunugama, who sacrificed his portfolio in the previous re-shuffle, will also be elevated to Cabinet rank.
The inclusion of SLMC leader Hakeem will be a noteworthy achievement for the President.
In the run up to the 18th amendment, the support of Hakeem and the SLMC was crucial for this was what tipped the scales in the government’s favour and convinced many UNP MPs to cross-over as well.
However, it was also known that Hakeem himself was a reluctant ally, if only because he was not fully convinced that the 18th amendment was the best option for the country.
But, faced with intense pressure from within his own party and risking being politically isolated, he finally yielded.
That, however, did not stop the opposition UNP and its leader Ranil Wickremasinghe in particular from hoping that Hakeem would support the government strictly on an issue-by-issue basis.
In fact, this is also what Hakeem publicly said when he endorsed the 18th amendment.
Therefore, the UNP leadership which allocated some of its National List slots to the SLMC much to the chagrin of its party seniors, did not protest against the SLMC’s support of the 18th amendment though it called for explanation from its own members and threatened to expel them over the same issue.
Now, however, it appears as if the SLMC has cast its lot firmly with the government.
An indication of this came when, at the UNP-sponsored no-confidence motion against External Affairs Minister G L Peiris, the congress voted with the government.
The President will obviously be keen to consolidate the support of the SLMC and he knows only too well that the best means of doing this would be to entrust a ministerial portfolio to Hakeem, who once resigned and walked out of Rajapaksa’s Cabinet, saying he lacked independence and authority as a minister.
Of course, increasing the number of ministers will invariably re-ignite criticism about a mega Cabinet and the expenses it entails. However, those in the government are confident that the popularity of the President and the relative disorganisation in the collective opposition will help deflect this.
More worrying for the President will be the dissension from within his own ranks.
Long-standing Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) loyalists have watched in anger as cross-overs from the UNP have walked into the Cabinet, while they have had to suffer in silence as a result.
More of that is likely in the impending Cabinet reshuffle too.
A case in point would be in the Badulla district where Dilan Perera will probably be appointed a deputy minister yet again - while his erstwhile rival in that district, Lakshman Seneviratne, enters the Cabinet.
There will be re-distribution of the deputy ministerial allocations in an attempt to overcome this but some disappointment - if not downright disaffection - will remain.
But the current standing of the President within the party is likely to prevent any open revolt and SLFPers will have to just grin and bear it.
A major overhaul of key portfolios is unlikely in this reshuffle, if only because ministers in some key ministries have already embarked on ambitious programmes for the next six years. Removing them now can only retard those plans until a new incumbent takes charge.
The next handful of weeks will see the final touches being added to the new Cabinet.
No longer burdened with a crippling war, it is hoped that the new ministers will now get down to work because voters in this country are a fickle lot and those ministers who do not deliver could be shown the door in six years.