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In a forceful critique of attempts to amend the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, the Secretary General of the Liberal Party, Kamal Nissanka, also made no bones about the fact that the current Provincial Council system had many flaws. Though the Liberal Party has always been in favour of devolution, we have also noted that there are several things about the 13th Amendment that need improvement. However we believe that this is best done through comprehensive discussions and consensus, certainly not through contentious piecemeal adjustments.

But while several structural changes are desirable, Kamal also noted a very practical problem that I had not seen highlighted before. He wrote that the system ‘had become a method  of wielding power  by  the same people  who enjoyed  power in the centre.  Close relatives of leading politicians were promoted to stand for provincial councils making it a political extended family.’

This indeed makes a mockery of the idea that Provincial Councils should provide the people with an alternative mechanism to address their concerns. Given that the current structure entails several overlaps, the duplication of authorities which have the same perspectives means that in essence the senior partners will lay down the law.  The Provincial Councils then become a sort of rubber stamp for the central government.

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One aspect of politics that draws criticism but little analysis is the phenomenon of large cabinets, with Members of Parliament imagining it their right to be appointed to Executive Office on the grounds of seniority alone.

This is nothing new, though the opposition affects to forget the massive numbers to whom President Jayewardene gave executive positions, which is when the trend really began. Not all his appointments were to the Cabinet or to Deputy positions, since he also had 25 District Ministerships to play around with, in addition to the Project Ministries he had instituted. The result was that at one stage he had over 100 Ministers of various types, in a Parliamentary group of around 140.

It is true that Ranil Wickremesinghe tried to restrict numbers, at a time when the topic had been raised by the JVP, which had made it a condition of the probation period they gave President Kumaratunga in 2001 that she restrict her Cabinet to 20. Unfortunately they failed to insist on a Cabinet amendment to this effect, and Mrs Kumaratunga in fact made it 22, though this did not help her to stay in power.

Mr Wickremesinghe adopted the expedient of appointing 40 Ministers, but putting only 20 of them in the Cabinet, and managed in the process to leave out the Minister of Human Resources Development. He claimed this was an oversight, though in fact it contributed to his favourites, Kabir Hashim and Suranimala Rajapaksa, as Project Ministers of Higher Education and Education respectively, settling themselves in their respective Ministries and exercising equal powers with Karunasena Kodituwakku who was in theory their superior. It was only three months after he first constituted the Cabinet that Ranil expanded it to include Kodituwakku and some others. Despite his claims to be cutting government expenditure, he evidently had no qualms about establishing Ministries which seemed to have no work, for some of his Ministers had no operational funds, receiving only establishment costs in the budget.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

July 2019
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