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, appears to have two objectives at this point of time.
One is to put together a top-level team which will carry out his political and governance agendas, and the other is to secure two thirds majority or near two thirds majority in the April 2020 parliamentary elections in order to carry out the constitutional changes he has up his sleeve.
It is well-known that he is very keen on either repealing or drastically pruning the 19 th. Amendment which cut the powers of the President and increased the powers of other arms of the State in a haphazard manner making the government as a whole dysfunctional.
In his Council of Ministers, Gotabaya has had the gumption to keep some very senior party leaders who had been Cabinet Ministers earlier, away from the Cabinet. These leaders were made State Ministers without cabinet rank. From this it is clear that President Gotabaya wants to have his own handpicked group of Cabinet Ministers who will, by and large, owe their 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, Mahinda Samarasinghe and John Seneviratne are now 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 bureaucracy also show his interest in having a different kind of people, 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.
Since national security and experience in intelligence gathering and coordination is a key requirement after the Easter Sunday (April 21, 2019) 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 on Hambantota port 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 Additional 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.
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 Makkal 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 regard to 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.
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 Provinces, 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 devolution over police and land. The Gotabaya government has 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 still 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.
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 very 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.