August 12, 2020 5:51:30 pm
Sri Lanka’s new Cabinet, including four members of the powerful Rajapaksa family, took oath on Wednesday with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa retaining the key defence ministry while the finance portfolio went to newly-elected Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa after their party won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections last week.
President Gotabaya administered the oath of office to the 28-member Cabinet which is two less than the 30 allowed by the Constitution. He also appointed 40 state ministers. The swearing-in ceremony was held in the central town of Kandy.
President Gotabaya retained the ministry of defence while his elder brother Prime Minister Mahinda has been assigned finance, urban development and Buddhist affairs ministries.
Mahinda’s elder son, Namal Rajapaksa has been named the Minister of Youth Affairs and Sports – a first time Cabinet position since he entered parliament in 2010.
The eldest brother of the president, Chamal Rajapaksa was named irrigation minister in addition to being the state minister of internal security. His son, Shasheendra Rajapaksa has also been given a state ministry.
One of the main features in the Cabinet is that while the veteran politician Dinesh Gunawardena has been re-named the foreign minister, a new state ministry of regional cooperation affiliated to the foreign ministry has been created.
Significantly, former president Maithripala Sirisena has been overlooked for a Cabinet ministry despite his overwhelming win in the elections from his north central home base.
President Gotabaya also appointed his lawyer as justice minister. Ali Sabry appeared for Gotabaya when he faced court cases related to corruption as a top defence bureaucrat when Mahinda earlier served as president.
Sabri is the only new face in the Cabinet from the new MPs elected.
The Rajapaksa led Sri Lanka People’s Party (SLPP) won a landslide victory in the parliamentary elections held last week that allowed the influential family to consolidate power for the next five years. The SLPP won a record 145 seats in the 225-member parliament.
The parliament is to meet on August 20 for its first session.
The Rajapaksa family — including SLPP founder and its National Organiser 69-year-old Basil Rajapaksa, who is the younger brother of Gotabaya, 71, and 74-year-old Mahinda — has dominated Sri Lankan politics for two decades.
President Gotabaya had won the November presidential election on the SLPP ticket. He dissolved Parliament in March and called for early snap elections.
In the parliamentary election, he was seeking 150 seats needed to execute constitutional changes, including to repeal the 19th Amendment introduced in 2015 that curtailed the powers of the President and strengthened the role of Parliament.
Activists, already alarmed by the diminishing space for dissent and criticism in the island nation, fear such a move could lead to authoritarianism.
The United National Party (UNP) of former prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe suffered a humiliating defeat during the election. It just won a single seat, that too since the party secured more than 2.5 per cent of the votes cast under a proportional representation system of voting.
UNP leader and four-time prime minister Wikremesinghe was unseated for the first time since he entered Parliament in 1977.
Mahinda earlier served as the country’s executive president from 2005-2015, a period which was mired by allegations of human rights abuses, especially against the minority Tamils.
He enjoys cult status among the 77 per cent Sinhala majority community for his action to end the brutal nearly three-decade-long civil war in the island nation with the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009.
The LTTE led by its leader Velupillai Prabhakaran had waged a violent campaign to carve out a separate Tamil homeland in the north and east of the island nation.
The new government will face challenges, especially on the economic front. Following the COVID-19 crisis, exports have slumped. Thousands of Sri Lankan expatriate workers, who have lost their jobs, have returned home.
The tourism industry, a major forex earner, faces a tough time ahead due to the pandemic.
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