6 April 2020 10:22 AM

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P.K.BALACHANDRAN | 30 DECEMBER, 2019

President Rajapaksa’s Priorities as seen in his First Month in Office

Gotabaya wants the stumbling block that is the 19th amendment removed.


COLOMBO: Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who won the Sri Lankan Presidential election on November 16 emphatically, and formed a government with his brother and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister, has been in office for just over a month.

In this period, his approach to issues facing Sri Lanka appears to be dictated by two immediate concerns: (a) putting together a top-level team which will carry out his political and governance agendas, and (b) securing two thirds majority or near two thirds majority, in the April 2020 parliamentary elections.

It is well-known that he needs two-thirds majority primarily because he is hell bent on either repealing or drastically pruning the 19 th Constitutional Amendment of 2015 which cut the powers of the President and increased the powers of the other arms of the State in a haphazard manner thus seriously affecting the functioning of the government. The dismal performance of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government between 2015 and 2019 was substantially due to the 19 th Amendment. Gotabaya wants this stumbling block removed quickly.

New Kind Of Team

To carry out his plans, Gotabaya wants his own handpicked men in his top team, namely the cabinet. In appointing his Council of Ministers, Gotabaya has had the gumption to keep some very senior party leaders away from the Cabinet. These leaders were made State Ministers without cabinet rank. From this it is clear that he wants to have around him people who owe their privileged positions to him and not to any earlier President. Senior leaders with years of cabinet membership like S.B.Dissanayake, Susil Premajayantha, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and Mahinda Samarasinghe, John Seneviratne are now mere State Ministers.

Of course, there is a cap on the number of Cabinet Ministers and also coalition compulsions to contend with. But these are not the main reasons for keeping the seniors out.

Appointments to the top levels of the government departments also show his interest in having a different kind of people, namely, people who are technically qualified for the job. He has, as his Secretary, not a generalist, but an economist, Dr.P.B.Jayasundara. Gotabaya wants to put the Lankan economy on a sound and also a nationalistic footing. That is one of his top priorities apart from ensuring national security. Jayasundara is a nationalist.

Gotabaya has chosen as the Governor of the Central Bank, not a foreigner (like Arjuna Mahendran) or a foreign-oriented economist (like Dr.Indrajit Coomaraswamy) but a homegrown Colombo University economist Dr.W.D.Lakshman. Lakshman also has no links with the scam-ridden Central Bank. He can, therefore, start on a clean state.

For Provincial Governorships he has chosen persons of proven loyalty and expertise. The Governor of the Northern Province is P.S.M.Charles a nationalistic Sri Lankan Tamil and a distinguished and experienced administrator. The Governor of the Eastern Province is a politically loyal and successful woman entrepreneur, Anuradha Yahampath.

Concern For Security

Since national security and experience in intelligence gathering and coordination is a key requirement after the Easter Sunday (April 21) suicide bomb attacks, Gotabaya chose Maj.Gen (Retired) Kamal Gunaratne to be Defense Secretary and General (Rtd) Daya Ratnayake to be Chairman of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA). It was intelligence failure and failure to act on available intelligence that led to the Jehadi attack in April which took more than 250 lives.

With world powers, US and China, and regional power India, looking at Colombo and Hambantota ports as strategic assets over which they would like to have control, the SLPA will have to acquire an economic cum political cum strategic orientation. And President Gotabaya himself has doubts whether the 2017 agreement with the Chinese n Hambantota fully addresses the security concerns of Sri Lanka. This is why he openly said that he would like two or three more clauses added to it to address these concerns. Gen.Ratnayake is expected to pursue the President’s goals in this regard as a security expert.

Given the importance given to security in a security-obsessed Indo-Pacific environment, the President has taken onboard as his foreign affairs advisor ( of Secretary-rank) a former Navy Commander-cum academic, Adm.Dr. Jayanath Colombage.

It is also expected that Lankan Ambassadors in various countries will be either professional and committed personnel from the Foreign Service or experts from various fields including the armed forces, who have proven organizational skills. It is very unlikely that man many of the new appointees will be people only with political connections.

Keeping Muslim Parties At Bay

On the political front, it appears that President Gotabaya will continue to keep the Muslims at bay in order not to alienate the Sinhala-majority on whose vote he came to power. This is one of the reasons why he has made no deal with any of the Muslim parties or leaders including Rauff Hakeem of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and Rishad Bathiyudeen of the All Ceylon Muslim Congress who had been hardy regulars in every Lankan cabinet.

In fact, Gotabaya has even refrained from appointing a Muslim to his Council of Ministers, even though his alliance group in parliament has two Muslims, Kader Masthan (elected) and Faiszer Musthapha (Nominated/ National List).

His government has now asked the CID to investigate Rauff Hakeem and Rishad Bathiyudeen in the Easter Sunday blast. It has re-started the probe into Dr. Seigu Shihabdeen Mohammad Shafi of the Kurunegala government hospital who had allegedly made 4000 Sinhala-Buddhist women sterile in order to restrict the Sinhala-Buddhist population. The probe is being reopened even though the CID had found no evidence to sustain the allegation.

Tough Line Against Tamil Demands

Again with an eye on the April 2020 parliamentary elections, Gotabaya has kept up the chant that he will not devolve more power to the Tamil-speaking Northern and Eastern Province, than already devolved. He has bluntly said that he will not devolve powers over the Police and Land. He has openly said that the majority Sinhalas will not approve of it. The Gotabaya government has also made it clear that the national anthem will be sung only in Sinhala at the next Independence Day function in Colombo.

The government has also said that it will re-examine the co-sponsored resolution in the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and tell the February-March session of the Council that Lanka has objections to some of the accountability mechanisms. This angers the Tamils and could anger the Western democracies too, but government cannot approve of the existing resolution and hope to keep the Sinhala-majority vote with it. Any major concession to the Tamils may not be liked by Gotabaya's Sinhala vote bank.

Nationalistic Economic Policies

On the economic front, the Gotabaya regime has not brought about any fundamental changes yet, given the time frame, but it has made prices come down through a slashing of taxes over a wide range of articles of common use. The slashing of taxes is expected to stimulate demand for goods and services and get the slumbering Lankan economy moving.

While conservative economists and international rating agencies have warned about a looming financial gap and an inability to repay government debts, the Presidential Advisor and the Treasury Secretary have maintained that these fears are baseless and alarmist.

The IMF would want the government to cut recurring expenditure and slash government spending , but in the pre-election months, government cannot do these things. In fact, the government is vigorously doing the opposite. The President said that over the next few years, he will create 100,000 new unskilled government jobs for the very poor so that they can stand on their feet and indirectly help generate demand for goods and services in the economy as a whole. Government is also going to spend billions of rupees on rural development from January 2020 without any prospect of getting immediate returns.

As regards welcoming FDI, Gotabaya has clearly indicated that he is not tied to the apron strings of China and that he would welcome investment from India, Japan, Singapore, Australia and South Korea. But at the same time he has indicated that Sri Lanka will have control over strategic assets like ports and airports. He denied that his government is having discussions with India on the Mattala airport built by China but lying unused.

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