Sri Lanka; Bench-marking Cabinet berths!

Sathiya Moorthy,  10 May 2018 

In London recently for the Commonwealth Summit, President Maithiripala Sirisena was reported to have told the BBC Sinhala channel that those selected for Cabinet positions ‘must not only be acceptable locally but also internationally’. Though the question reportedly pertained to the choice for Law and Order Minister, the President was quoted as saying this much, “The one who is to be appointed to a ministerial portfolio should have local and international recognition.”

Well said – yes and no. In the specific instance, Law and Order pertains not to a ministerial nominee’s understanding of international situations and the possibility of the international community conferring recognition of a formal or even an informal kind on the person.

The nominating authority, not necessarily,  Sirisena in this case, could well be his coalition partners, starting with the UNP Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe should definitely take into consideration the possible acceptance of the nominee, if it pertained to the choice of Foreign Minister or Minister for International Trade, or even Finance Minister.

In the case of Law and Order Minister, his ability to control domestic situations of the kind that the portfolio entails, and his ability to work with the uniformed services, especially the Police in this case, alone should matter. His/her knowledge and understanding of the mood and methods of the nation’s diverse population, and sensitivity to issues and problems, existing or emanating, would definitely be an add-on. International recognition could follow.

Otherwise too, Sirisena’s bench-marking of ‘international recognition’, if not outright ‘international acceptance’ of a Cabinet nominee may well be drawn from the ‘American model’. There the Cabinet nominees are – or, have to be – non-Congress persona.

The idea is to give the US President, elbow room, to bring in technocrats and experts with varied experience to the administration, people who are as much recognized in their chosen fields across the world as they are appreciated nearer home.

It is so even with the choice of an American President-elect’s team of officials. They rather come with him and go with him. Even when a US President gets re-elected for a second four-year term, a number of his original team-members return to their parent field of work, with their confidence and comfort levels mostly intact. It could be academic research and/or teaching, business or any other profession.

Give-and-take, but…

Sri Lanka is not America, and Sri Lankan Presidents do not have the same powers and responsibilities as their US counterparts, in this context. Instead, they have to necessarily choose from Parliamentarians the people have elected – those who are on his side of the fence. In the contemporary Sri Lankan context, incumbent President Sirisena does not have all the say in the matter.

Much of the right and responsibility rests with Wickremesinghe, not necessarily as Prime Minister but more, as the ‘Leader’ of the majority UNP partner in the coalition government.

In ‘healthier democracies’ the President or the Prime Minister, as the case may be, is not necessarily the party boss. If anything, they take great pains to distinguish and differentiate between the party leadership and nation’s elected administrator. Though in a presidential form of government, the elected person has full freedom to choose his Cabinet, in parliamentary democracies, there is a mix and match, give-and-take.
In context, it is as much about the intended nominee winning his or her parliamentary seat before being considered for a Cabinet or ministerial berth. Their experience as a political leader, their political and electoral base matter the most in the portfolio allotted, than their perceived expertise in the field.

It is not unlikely that in some cases, the Executive President or Prime Minister may well want to keep a closer eye on a few ministries more directly than on others, with the result they may have ‘electorally weak’ nominees for those jobs. In Sri Lanka, the system of ‘National List’ MPs facilitates as much.

In democracies like in neighbouring India, the indirectly-elected Upper House provides an opportunity for weak politicians or strong technocrats to become ‘speciality ministers’, say, for Finance, Defence, Justice, Health, Education, and so on.

‘Negative vote’ still

There is no need to name names, but the nation has enough precedents of efficient ministers not being able to win even a Local Government election, leave aside a Parliamentary seat. Worse is the case of those that are popular with the international community – foreign governments and their Colombo missions, and began with a promising ministerial career on the very strength but could not go beyond that point, when faced with a popular poll.

Even more interesting could be that of elected Presidents, or nominated Prime Ministers, so to say. Sirisena himself was elected President, not because the ‘international community’ readily endorsed him first. Instead, it was only because they were ‘guaranteed’ minority communities’ vote for him, against his incumbent and boss, Mahinda Rajapaksa – and even more of the then political opposition in the UNP.

That way, yes, Sirisena had the ‘approval’ of the international community before he had become acceptable to the electorate nearer home. On the reverse, incumbent Mahinda R. had a relatively better ‘positive vote-hopes’ on the home front but not the ‘international community approval’. At least his camp continues to claim that it was the latter that made the Sirisena Presidency possible – but on a ‘negative vote’ still.

Global War on Terror

In comparison, possibly PM Ranil has had, and may continue to have, better approval-ratings of the international community than any individual leader in the country. But until the ‘Sirisena coup’ of 2015, for years and elections together, including his own for the presidency in Elections-2005, he could not become what he had wanted to become. Even then, he could only help make Sirisena President, continuing to serve him as Prime Minister since 2015.

Against this, Mahinda R. was never ever known to have a ready ‘international acceptance’ other than possibly China. The West acknowledged him in office and worked with his Government over decimating the LTTE only over the limited agenda of their post-9/11 ‘Global War on Terrorism’.

Team Rajapaksa seemed to have got it all confused with his post-war popularity rating, and got hit from then on – first at UNHRC and only later in Elections 2015.

If Sirisena is possibly referring to it all still, it was not because the West wanted him elected President, but because they too wanted Rajapaksa out, and for different reasons and justifications than his. Rather, Sirisena did not have any other reason or justification then, for him to be elected President, nor does he have any now.

In more ways than one, Sirisena, in the eyes of the international community, was possibly a ‘transition leader’, if not a ‘stop-gap’ between Rajapaksa and their own ‘eternal aspirant’ in Wickremesinghe.

If Sirisena still continues, that too is not because the West wants him; but because Wickremesinghe and the UNP have not found a more imaginative way, than in 2015, to have him out before Elections 2020.  The fear of a Rajapaksa return, then too, adding a new element, till then, and only till then  and taking away even whatever Ranil still has got!

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