In a major effort to strengthen himself in the parliament and the government, the Sri Lankan President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, on Sunday admitted 18 MPs from the opposition United National Party (UNP) and six from the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) to his fold, and rewarded them with ministerial posts.
With 113 MPs with him now in a house of 225 (including the Speaker), Rajapaksa has acquired a simple majority.
But his de-facto strength will be 122 because he can count on the 9 MPs of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), given the latter's past record.
The wooing of opposition UNP and SLMC MPs had been necessitated by two factors:
(a) The need to build a government and a party of his own, with hand-picked men in key positions who would also owe their positions to him and him only.
(b) The need to distance himself from the ultra-leftist and anti-foreign Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).
(c) The need to considerably weaken the main opposition party, the UNP.
In the process of achieving these objectives, Rajapaksa has lost the support of the 37-member JVP. In addition, the 22-member pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the remaining UNP, consisting of 43 members, will continue to oppose him.
But even this opposition is expected to be muted because of the popularity of the president, thanks to his recent military victories.
Many MPs in the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) are reportedly unhappy about the grant of portfolios to defectors, but a revolt is unlikely because president Rajapaksa is popular.
Cabinet posts for 11 defectors
Ten UNP MPs and one SLMC MP were given cabinet posts. The rest were expected to be given non-cabinet ministerial posts later in the day.
Among the leading UNP MPs in the 52-member cabinet are: Karu Jayasuriya ( Public Administration and Home); Milinda Moragoda (Tourism); MH Mohammad (Parliamentary Affairs); GL Peiris (Export Development and International Trade); Bandula Gunawardena (Trade and Marketing Development); Rajitha Senaratne (Construction and Engineering); Gamini Lokuge (Sports and Youth); and Mahinda Wijesekara (Special Projects). Rauff Hakeem of the SLMC is Minister for Posts and Telecom.
Mangala Samaraweera, who opposed the entry of UNP MPs, has lost the prestigious post of Foreign Minister though he retains Ports and Aviation. Anura Bandaranaike, brother of former President Chandrika Kumaratunga and a known opponent of Rajapaksa's, has been given National Heritage, a demotion from Tourism, a high profile ministry.