Cricket Controversy, Cabinet Reshuffle, and President’s Overseas Visit

In the week that passed, most of the country’s attention was focused not on politics but on cricket, a game followed by the nation with religious fervour. Sri Lanka played stand-in hosts on behalf of Pakistan for the Asia cup and raised expectations of the nation by reaching the finals on Sunday.

The road to the finals was arduous, having narrowly beaten Afghanistan and then defeating Pakistan in a last ball thriller. The finals against India were an anti-climax with Sri Lanka recording its second lowest one-day score and suffering a humiliating defeat that devastated the cricket loving public.
The scale of that defeat will again shift attention to the functioning of Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC). The sport’s governing body has recently been in the news following allegations that its high officials misused funds to sponsor selected individuals to accompany them during overseas tournaments.

Sports Minister Roshan Ranasinghe is known to have differences of opinion with the present hierarchy of SLC and has been instrumental in efforts to introduce a new Constitution to govern the sport’s controlling body in the country but the move has been delayed due to legal issues.

The efforts to introduce a new Constitution to SLC began in February 2021 when a group of twelve persons including former cricketers and respected cricket administrators filed a petition in the Court of Appeal seeking the Court’s approval to reform the Constitution of SLC.

The Court of Appeal was also notified of the need for a new Constitution for the SLC by the Minister of Sports Roshan Ranasinghe in December 2022. Accordingly, a 10-member committee of experts led by Justice K.T. Chitrasiri was assigned this task in February 2023 through a special Gazette.

Last week however, the Court of Appeal issued an interim order preventing the Sports Minister from proceeding with the draft constitution. This was following a writ petition filed by SLC challenging the legality of drafting a new constitution, indicating the differences between SLC and the Minister.

With cricket’s most sought-after trophy, the World Cup due to begin in a few weeks in India, the Sri Lankan public will be following these developments as well as the performances of our national team and the responses of Sports Minister Roshan Ranasinghe with great interest in the months to come.

Minister Ranasinghe recently raised eyebrows when he publicly declared that he had not sanctioned the Lanka Premier League (LPL) tournament conducted by SLC. However, it was noted that President Ranil Wickremesinghe was himself a guest of SLC at the finals of the popular tournament.

Indeed, for some time now, there has been speculation that there would be a minor Cabinet reshuffle. Among the portfolios that are being hinted as being targets for reallocation are Health, Sports, etc. All of these sectors have had recent controversies which have affected public sentiment.

In Health, Minister Keheliya Rambukwella survived a No-Confidence Motion (NCM) in Parliament recently but it is no secret that the once reputed free healthcare system in the country is in crisis and the President may save face for Rambukwella by shifting his ministry after winning the NCM.

It is uncertain whether President Wickremesinghe will affect a mini reshuffle of his Cabinet at this juncture, given that he has been reluctant to do so until now, staying with almost the entire Cabinet sworn in by former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa prior to his hurried resignation last year.

Even if President Wickremesinghe were to undertake such a reshuffle, that would be on his return to the country. He is now overseas, visiting Cuba to attend the summit of the Group of 77 Nations (and China) and will also be in the United States for the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

The Group of 77 (G77) is a coalition of 135 developing countries, designed to promote its members’ collective economic interests and create an enhanced joint negotiating capacity in the United Nations.  There were 77 founding members of the organisation but it has since expanded to 135 countries.

Addressing the G77 Summit in Havana, President Wickremesinghe stressed the importance of collaboration between Governments and the private sector and proposed creating technological platforms in fields like digitalisation, health, medication, Artificial Intelligence and renewable energy.

The President also utilised his time in Cuba to have bilateral discussions with Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermudez. The two leaders emphasized the importance of bolstering bilateral relations focusing on sectors such as medicine, healthcare, sports training and coconut cultivation.

The President is now in the United States and is due to address the UN General Assembly today (Thursday). The theme of this year’s session is “Accelerating action on the 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals towards peace, prosperity, progress and sustainability for all”.

Additionally, President Wickremesinghe has been invited to deliver the keynote speech at the Indo-Pacific Island Dialogue for Maritime Nations. In what will be a busy schedule for the President, he will also have bilateral discussions with several State leaders participating in the conference.

The President did make use of his presence in New York to met with President of the World bank Ajay Banga. Sri Lanka’s current economic circumstances and pathways to recovery figured in the discussion the President had with Banga, an Indian-born American business executive.

Meanwhile in Sri Lanka, Ranjith Siyambalapitiya, who is Acting Minister of Finance during the absence of President Wickremesinghe, was keen to end speculation that there would be a new agreement with the other international lending agency, the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The second tranche of the IMF loan facility is due at the end of this month and IMF and Government officials are currently evaluating the progress made on key stipulations made by the IMF. The difficult hurdle of Domestic Debt Optimisation (DDO) has been completed, Siyambalapitiya noted.

The next event on the calendar that will be watched with great interest is the Government’s Budget proposals which are due in November. President Wickremesinghe who also holds the Finance portfolio is known to have already given guidelines to Treasury officials in this regard.

It is a political and economic tightrope that President Wickremesinghe will have to navigate in the Budget. On the economic front, he has to subscribe to strict fiscal discipline to ensure that the country is on track to recovery and also to continue receiving the IMF financial assistance package.

On the political front, the President cannot afford to burden the public with too many taxes and tariff hikes as the country faces the prospect of major national elections next year. This would be particularly so if he intends to contest the next presidential poll which will be due by October 2024.

President Wickremesinghe himself alluded to this once in an off-the-cuff remark made in Parliament two weeks ago, in response to comments made by Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa when the DDO process was being discussed. “You will find many surprises in the next Budget,” he said then.

There is a political aspect to the Budget as well. there was speculation some months ago that a group of parliamentarians, especially those who have been elected on the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) ticket but have declared themselves ‘independent’ now, would vote against the Budget.

There was even some conjecture that such a vote could a pose a serious threat to the stability of the Government. However, such concerns have diminished now, more so after the NCM against Minister Keheliya Rambukwella was defeated convincingly by forty votes, despite many SLPPers abstaining.

It is clear that, on his return to the country, President Ranil Wickremesinghe will have to channel his energies once more to the political aspects of government. The decisions he makes- on potential reshuffles and the Budget in particular- are very likely to have a lasting impact on events to come.