Hard bargaining over Cabinet portfolios

SLFP UNP logos

“Aim for the moon and hit the stars” was the Sri Lanka Freedom Party’s rule when it negotiated for ministerial portfolios with the UNP to form a national unity government.

As soon as the party’s Central Committee gave its green light to form a national government, the SLFP wanted 16 ministries out of 35.

The UNP, which secured 106 seats in Parliament, was expected to hold 19 ministries. However, as negotiations progressed, the total number of ministries saw an increase and it finally ended at 45.

The UNP argued that it needed at least 30 ministries as it was only seven seats short of securing an absolute majority in the House. With that condition, the SLFP’s ministerial slots dropped to 15.

The team of SLFP seniors who took part in the discussions included former Opposition Leader Nimal Siripala de SIlva, former SLFP General Secretary Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and former UPFA General Secretary Susil Premajayantha. They argued for ‘important’ ministries on the grounds that they had 95 seats in Parliament.

Two of their demands were for the Finance Ministry and the Media Ministry – two key ministries. They also demanded a ‘Deputy Prime Minister’ post for former Opposition Leader Nimal Siripala de Silva, although there are no constitutional provisions for such a position.

The UNP side reportedly rejected that demand insisting that both the Media and Finance portfolios remain with the UNP. The SLFP then argued that they had been given ‘second tier’ and less important ministries under the previous national unity government and they did not need a ‘carbon copy’ of the same administration.

The UNP negotiators, on the other hand, were not willing to give the most important ministerial portfolios to the SLFP as they thought they were in a position to form a government with the support of a few ‘crossover’ MPs.

Soon after the elections results were released, the TNA gave indications to the UNP as well as to the President that it was ready to back a UNP-led administration, without being stakeholders in the government. Parties such as the CWC and the EPDP are also waiting to cross the floor of Parliament and join the Government as they cannot survive in their electorates without ministerial portfolios.

Demand to exit National Govt

Meanwhile, there is a lobby of young MPs in the UNP who argue that the party has the strength to form a government on its own, pointing to similar minority governments of the past.

When the UPFA first formed a government in 2004, it had only 105 seats in Parliament with 38 seats held by the JVP. When the UNP formed a government in December, 2001, with Ranil Wickremesinghe as the Prime Minister, it had 109 MPs in Parliament – four seats short of a simple majority. Under the present electoral system, the only time the UNP formed a government with a simple majority in Parliament was in 1989 when it contested under former President Ranasinghe Premadasa.

Therefore, a sizable proportion of UNP MPs, especially young ones, requested the party seniors to do away with the national government process and form a Greens-only government. Probably, they did not understand the risks of forming a government without securing a simple majority in Parliament.

However, the agreement between the President, the Prime Minister and former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, to form a national government after the Parliamentary election was arrived at during the last phase of the Rajapaksa regime.

When Maithripala Sirisena challenged Rajapaksa’s presidency as the Common Candidate of the opposition, he explicitly stated that the ‘true SLFP’ was willing to work with the UNP for at least two years to ‘transform’ the country and its system of governance.

During the 100-day period after the presidential election victory, President Sirisena had to draw the support of a section of the SLFP before the Parliamentary election as his government required a simple majority in Parliament to proceed with the much needed constitutional reforms and other legislative measures.

Originally, President Sirisena, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and former President Kumaratunga had the understanding that the new government should be a ‘national unity government’, irrespective of the outcome of the Parliamentary polls.

It was due to this understanding that the UNP could not move away from the national unity government concept even in the face of the heavy pressure exerted by the SLFP.

When it looked as though the discussions between the two parties were heading towards a deadlock, UNP General Secretary Kabir Hashim and several other seniors went on record saying the party might not go for a national government if they could not arrive at a final agreement with the SLFP. This announcement came at a juncture where parties such as the CWC who contested the election on the UPFA ticket were quite desperate about joining the government.

At this point, the SLFP negotiators decided to go for an amicable settlement, fearing a last minute pull-out by the UNP. They settled for 15 ministries and several deputy ministerial portfolios.

According to highly placed political sources, the SLFP will get some key ministries such as Samurdhi, Agriculture, Transport, Petroleum and Irrigation. While sorting out ministries, both parties also agreed to hold the swearing-in ceremony on September 2. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and UNP Chairman Malik Samarawickrama played key roles in finalizing the agreement to form a national unity government.

National Govt term

Measures were also taken to add minor amendments to the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the UNP and the SLFP with regard to the framework of the national government. They decided to amend the MoU in a manner that would not harm the basic structure of the proposed national unity government.

“The existing clauses will remain same. We have proposed some more additions to it to further enhance the cooperation between the two parties. The document will be signed soon after a final agreement is reached. Our priority is to discuss how well the two parties can get on with each other, and how both parties can work towards a national agenda. The connection between the two parties must be consolidated,” SLFP General Secretary Duminda Dissanayake told the Sunday Observer.

According to informed political sources, both parties are now exploring the possibility of removing the clause pertaining to the timeframe of the national government. The agreement which has been signed says the UNP and the SLFP should work together within the framework of a national government for two years. Several discussions took place last week to amend the clause pertaining to the timeframe with the aim of allowing parties to pull out of the agreement at any time.

Another issue cropped up when they realized that the legislature had to approve the modality of the national government before the swearing-in ceremony of the ministers. Speaking to reporters in Colombo, SLFP acting General Secretary Duminda Dissanayake said the swearing-in of the new Cabinet is not likely to take place on September 2, as scheduled earlier.

The swearing-in, according to him, will take place on September 4, instead, after a parliamentary debate on September 3. The main business of the 15th Parliament at the inaugural session on September 1 would be to approve the modalities to form a National Government and elect a Speaker and the Leader of the Opposition.

Parallel to the national government initiative, the SLFP will also hold its 64th anniversary in grand style in Polonnaruwa on September 2 with the participation of President Maithripala Sirisena. One has every reason to believe that the anniversary event will also be President Sirisena’s ‘coronation’ as the party Chairman and the event is expected to be held in the President’s hometown.

The list of SLFP MPs expected to accept ministerial portfolios in the national unity government include Nimal Siripala de silva, Susil Premajayantha, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, John Seneviratne, S.B. Dissanayake, Mahinda Amaraweera, Duminda Dissanayake and Mahinda Samarasinghe. Some of the SLFP Ministers expected to accept ministerial portfolios were staunch backers of former President Rajapaksa, a few weeks back. Speaking to the media, former Minister and SLFP Treasurer S.B. Dissanayake claimed that 70 out of 95 UPFA MPs were ready to join the national government.

Ironically, former Speaker and Hambantota District MP-elect Chamal Rajapaksa too is among the SLFP group supporting a national government. His name was earlier proposed as a potential candidate for the opposition leader’s position. But, the former Speaker has now made his position clear that he will join a national government, toeing the party line.

Speaking to our sister paper the Daily News on Friday, Rajapaksa revealed his plans saying he was willing to give the necessary strength required to form a Government in order to carry out the functions of the State uninterruptedly. “Politics involves discipline. We have to abide by the Party leader’s decision,” he said.

When asked whether he would like to assume a ministerial portfolio in the National Government, he said there had been no such discussion yet. “We have to go along with the decision of the party leadership if we are staying in the party. If not then they should leave the party,” he added.

Opposition leader

Chamal Rajapaksa’s move indicates a split in the Rajapaksa family UPFA MPs-elect Namal Rajapaksa and Mahinda Rajapaksa having announced that they would sit in the Opposition, even though the SLFP and UNP signed an MoU to form a national government. Namal Rajapaksa, after the meeting the President had with the SLFP MPs-elect on August 23 at the President’s official residence in Colombo, told the media that he has decided to remain in the Opposition stating that the President has given them the freedom to choose whether to join the government or not.

The question surrounding the position of Opposition Leader is still a hot topic among political circles. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party Central Committee, which met at the President’s official residence in Colombo on Friday evening, decided to entrust the President with the task of appointing the Opposition Leader, the Deputy Speaker and the Chief Opposition Whip on behalf of the party.

According to the decision, the President who is also the leader of the government will have to nominate the Leader of the Opposition. However, several legal viewpoints have been presented challenging the SLFP’s eligibility to appoint an opposition leader. The SLFP is not recognized in the present Parliament as a party as all SLFP MPs contested on the UPFA ticket at the Parliamentary election. Therefore, the nominee for the Opposition Leader’s position should either come from the UPFA or from the TNA. However, the SLFP Central Committee’s decision to allow President Sirisena to nominate candidates will inadvertently address this matter as the President is also the Chairman of the UPFA coalition.

The final decision on the Opposition Leader of the new Parliament will be made by the new Speaker. The UNP has already decided to nominate Karu Jayasuriya for the Speaker’s post and this appointment will not be challenged by the Opposition. After assuming duties in the position on September 1, his first duty will be to appoint an Opposition Leader to lead the opposition. Jayasuriya held a discussion with a group of senior lawyers on Friday night over the legal basis of the matter.

Biswal’s visit

One of the fears nagging the minds of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his close associates over the past few years was the possibility of an international investigation on the final phase of the war in Sri Lanka.

The Rajapaksas knew that international inquiries could not be manipulated by the Sri Lankan government in the same way that the regime did with investigative judicial processes locally. They made every possible move to circumvent the ‘international inquiry’ but their efforts did not produce the desired results. What pushed the Rajapaksa regime to the wall was its failure to initiate a credible domestic inquiry, as promised in the joint statement signed by the Sri Lankan President and the UN Secretary General soon after the end of the Eelam war. At the same time, the breakdown of rule of law in Sri Lanka and autocratic tendencies of the former administration also diminished the hopes of the international community when it came to an internal accountability process. It was against this backdrop that the new government came to power on January 8 with the promise of restoring freedom and democracy while establishing good governance.

As part of the same process, the government had to repair its links with the US and India – two key stakeholders of the international community. US Secretary of State John Kerry and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Sri Lanka for brief visits. At the same time, the Foreign Affairs Ministry managed to ‘delay’ the UNHRC war crimes report against Sri Lanka which was scheduled to be presented to the March session of the UN Human Rights Council.

There are strong indications that the September session of the UNHRC would be a crucial one for Sri Lanka. It was in this context that US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Nisha Biswal and Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour Tom Malinowski arrived in Sri Lanka, just two weeks before the UNHRC session. During the discussions held with Biswal and Melanowski, the Lankan leaders explained the measures they have already taken to address the concerns raised by the international community over accountability issues in Sri Lanka.

The Sri Lankan government’s main objective was to get their consent for a credible domestic mechanism, without leaving space for an international prosecution.

US shift

In a major breakthrough, the Sri Lankan government managed to shift the US stance over an international investigation on the final phase of war in Sri Lanka. The US, which earlier pushed for a comprehensive international investigation, said last week that it would sponsor a resolution at the next session of the UN Human Rights Council supporting a domestic inquiry mechanism. It indicated that the US had faith in the initiatives carried out by the Sri Lankan government on the reconciliation and accountability front.

US Assistant State Secretary Biswal made her country’s position clear when she addressed a group of international correspondents in Colombo last week, following her talks with the Sri Lankan government. During the discussions, the Sri Lankan government had presented the outline of the domestic inquiry to Biswal, while making her aware of the progress made on the reconciliation and accountability front, after January. “Biswal was satisfied with the mechanism adopted by the Sri Lankan government and they admitted that the Sri Lanka has made significant progress in this regard after the regime change in January,” a senior spokesman of the government who was privy to discussions between the two parties said on Thursday.

“They were of the view that the passage of 19th Amendment to the constitution was an important step in the direction of democratization. In addition, handing over lands to civilians in the North and the East, the Witness Protection Act and lifting travel bans on foreigners entering former war-affected areas were also considered as ‘progressive’ steps,” he explained.

New Ministry

In addition to short-term measures to cope with accountability and reconciliation issues, the government is now ready to set up a new ministry for ‘Integration and Reconciliation’ as a comprehensive step to address concerns raised by the international community.The ministry is likely to be held by President Maithripala Sirisena who will also serve in the capacity of the Defence Minister.

Speaking to reporters in Trincomalee on Thursday, Assistant Secretary Malinowski expressed confidence that the new government would work with the UN on a “real process” of accountability and reconciliation.

“The United States will sponsor another resolution on Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council in September and we are not going to walk away from this process of encouraging reform and change after September.

We very much hope that with the changes after January 8, the new government will work with us and work with the United Nations on a real process of accountability and reconciliation. The international community will remain involved in that process. It will continue to monitor that process.

And as much as we are hopeful about the promises that the new government had made, we will judge it not by its promises but by its actions and achievements,” he said.

Commenting on the domestic inquiry mechanism, Malinowski said: “The important thing is that there be a judicial process that is credible to the people of Sri Lanka and to the international community. For that process to be credible, I don’t think it has to be a completely international process, but it does have to be independent of political leadership.

It has to be led by people who are trusted by the minority communities and it should have some degree of international involvement, even if it is a domestic process organized under the laws of Sri Lanka.”

It was in this background that a section of media reported last week that UN Human Rights Chief Prince Zeid al Hussein will visit Sri Lanka soon. However, when contacted by the Sunday Observer, senior officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said they were not in a position to confirm the visit yet. At this point, it is clear that the Sri Lankan government will not come under pressure for an international investigation, but it will have to bear in mind the obligation of a credible domestic inquiry mechanism without consuming much time.

(Source: Sunday Observer)