By Chathuri Dissanayake
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe yesterday made an open request to United National Party Parliamentarians to voluntarily give up Ministry portfolios, in a bid to limit the Cabinet to 30 members.
Initially, only Party senior Malik Samarawickrama offered to step down, but seeing there were no volunteers, Party leaders who form the United National Front, All Ceylon Makkal Congress Party leader Rishad Bathiudeen and Tamil Progressive Alliance Leader Mano Ganesan offered to step down.
Ganesan later wrote on twitter to say: “At #UNF group meeting today; PM opined to keep number of cabinet ministers at 30 & solicited cabinet aspirants to voluntarily stay out of cabinet. Myself & #Rishad said “we will stay out w/out any cabinet portfolio, if u so wish, to keep it at 30” #lka”
However, Parliamentarians Eran Wickramaratne and Dr. Harsha De Silva, along with UNP National Organiser Navin Dissanayake, spoke against a decision to keep the two minority party leaders out of Cabinet, noting that the duo has stood by the UNP in times of trouble, sources present at the meeting told Daily FT.
Dissanayake also pointed out that the National List Parliamentarians should give up Cabinet portfolios and allow UNP District organisers to take the positions, noting that only they have to answer to the constituents during the upcoming elections. The Cabinet which was functioning before Wickremesinghe was sacked on 26 October included three UNP National List MPs: Thilak Marapana who held Foreign Ministry, Malik Samarawickrama as Development Strategies and International Trade Minister and D. M. Swaminathan who was Rehabilitation, Northern Development and Hindu Religious Affairs Minister. Speaking against requesting to volunteer out of Cabinet portfolios, Dissanayake noted that the Prime Minister should decide on who should be appointed to the posts.
The group also discussed the possibility of appointing non-Cabinet Ministers with Cabinet status, as a solution to the current limitations, sources said.
“If this option is used, then those who are appointed will come for Cabinet meetings when subjects relevant to their Ministries are taken up,” one UNP member who was present at the meeting explained.
Stressing on the urgency to appoint the Cabinet to enable the new Government to present a Vote on Account, the Prime Minister told the group that a short list of recommended names will be sent to President Maithripala Sirisena soon.
However the group was told that a full Cabinet will not be appointed, as the Government has to wait till the Quo Warranto case is over, a source present in the meeting told the Daily FT.
No specific portfolios were discussed during the meeting; however, both Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa and Dissanayake spoke strongly against exerting any pressure on their leader Wickremesinghe, making demands on Ministry portfolios.
Threatening to go public about the pressure exerted by certain members in the UNP, Premadasa said that the entire UNP membership will stand by Wickremesinghe if such demands are made by any UNPer, sources said.
Speaking firmly, Premadasa also told his party members to not squander the opportunity before the party, noting that Wickremesinghe should be mindful to ‘appoint the right type of people’ who were not ‘corrupt’ and are ‘capable’. He also noted that the Prime Minister and the UNP should be able to stand by the appointments and defend those appointed if needed.
Meanwhile, it was said that President Maithripala Sirisena wanted to keep Environment, Law and Order, and Media ministries under his portfolio. However, the request has not received a favourable response from the UNP Parliamentarians group. Noting that the President was no longer with the Government, some Parliamentarians had pointed out the agreement the UNP had with him to share portfolios was no longer valid.
“He should be only presiding on the Cabinet like President Chandrika Kumaratunga did during her time,” one member stressed.
Signalling that the battle between Sirisena and the Wickremesinghe-led UNP is far from over, the President later announced that he will not appoint any Sri Lanka Freedom Party member who crossed over as a Cabinet Minister. However, sources within the UNP said that three more crossovers from the SLFP are likely today.