Budget a Blueprint for Stability | Daily News

Budget a Blueprint for Stability

The energies of the Government this week were devoted to ensuring the passage of Budget 2023 through Parliament in a complex political climate that has seen the two-thirds majority previously enjoyed by the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) being seriously challenged by a series of defections.

The Budget was presented in Parliament on November 14 by President and Finance Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. As the party he represents, the United National Party (UNP) has only one Member of Parliament (MP Vajira Abeywardena), he required the support of the SLPP to ensure that the Budget was passed.

Presented during what is arguably the worst economic crisis faced by Sri Lanka since Independence from Britain in 1948, the Budget attracted critical acclaim. While many SLPP MPs endorsed it, several Opposition MPs also conceded that it included many positive aspects of reform.

Challenging reforms

What was noteworthy about this Budget was that it was a departure from a self-congratulatory theme. Instead, it was reflective, queried where mistakes in policy were made in the recent past and proposed a challenging reform agenda with policies such as the sale of State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) and raising some taxes.

In presenting the budget, President Wickremesinghe, who now holds the Finance portfolio for the first time in his 45-year career in politics, was unapologetic. He was emphatic in his stance that the drastic measures that were required could be unpopular but were equally needed by the country.

Notably, the Budget was also bereft of any welfare measures the Nation could ill-afford. President Wickremesinghe readily acknowledged that a significant proportion of the population was facing hardships but at the same time stated that measures such as a wage increase for Public Sector workers were not possible now.

Given the volatile and unpredictable political landscape prevailing in the country, much attention was focused on whether the Budget would be approved by Parliament. This is because of the change of loyalties of a section of the SLPP, which previously counted a total of 145 MPs.

These defections followed several months of political turmoil that saw the resignation of the previous Cabinet of Ministers followed by the resignations of former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa in May and former Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa resigning from Parliament in June this year.

The unrest, which coincided with shortages of electricity, fossil fuel and domestic LP Gas, eventually culminated in the resignation of former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in July from Singapore. Thereafter, several groups of SLPP MPs distanced themselves from the Government, citing various reasons.

An attempt by new President Ranil Wickremesinghe to form an ‘All-Party Government’ (APG) while including representatives from the Opposition parties in Parliament attracted only a very limited response from the collective Opposition. They were on an individual basis and not from the political parties concerned.

Those who joined the Government in this manner included Ministers Nimal Siripala de Silva and Mahinda Amaraweera from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and Ministers Manusha Nanayakkara and Harin Fernando from the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB). Both parties have disowned these Ministers.

With public unrest that led to the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa indicating that the popularity of the SLPP-led Government was diminishing, it has been suggested that those who defect are attempting to ensure their re-election at the next polls by cutting their ties to the ruling party.

As a result, several groups of former SLPP MPs are now functioning as ‘Independents’ in Parliament. They include a group of six SLFP MPs, former President Maithripala Sirisena, Dayasiri Jayasekara, Duminda Dissanayake, Angajan Ramanathan, Shan Wijayalal De Silva and Sarathi Dushmantha.

Another group identifies itself as the ‘Nidahasa Jathika Sabhawa’ (NJS) and includes former SLPP Chairman G.L. Peiris, Dullas Alahapperuma who contested for the election of the President in Parliament and former Cabinet Ministers under Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Dr. Nalaka Godahewa and Prof. Channa Jayasumana.

This group of 13 MPs also includes Prof. Charitha Herath, Dilan Perera and backbenchers Dr. Upul Galappatti, Dr. Thilak Rajapaksha, Lalith Ellawala, K.P.S. Kumarasiri, Wasantha Yapa Bandara, Prof. Gunapala Rathnasekara and Udayana Kirindigoda.

Yet another group is known as the ‘Uththara Lanka Sabhawa’ (ULS). It consists of MP Wimal Weerawansa as its leader as well as former Ministers Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Udaya Gammanpila and Prof. Tissa Vitharana who have all been critical of the Budget presented by the President.

This group of 12 MPs also comprises Ven. Athuraliye Rathana Thera, Gevindu Kumaratunga, Jayantha Samaraweera, Mohamed Muzammil, Weerasumana Weerasinghe, Gamini Waleboda, Uddika Premaratne and Nimal Piyatissa, all MPs who were elected on the SLPP ticket in 2020.

In addition to the above groups, a further group of six SLPP MPs- namely, former Ministers Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and, John Seneviratne, Chandima Weerakkody, Dr. Sudarshini Fernadopulle, Jayarathna Herath and Piyankara Jayaratne have declared they would function as ‘Independents’. However, this group with the exception of Dr. Fernandopulle, has now aligned itself with the SJB.

With so many different factions of MPs elected from the SLPP pledging to function as ‘Independents’ there was a concern that, if all of them were to collectively oppose the Budget, it would not be passed in Parliament, a consequence which would have had serious repercussions for the Government.

This is because the total number of so-called ‘Independent’ MPs - six from the SLFP, 13 from the NJS, 12 from the ULS and six from the SLPP - amount to 37 MPs. Depleted of this number of MPs, the Parliamentary majority of the Government would be under serious threat.

This was however offset by several MPs elected from the Opposition at the August 2020 General Election now joining the Government to support it. They include Harin Fernando, Manusha Nanayakkara, Diana Gamage and Aravindh Kumar, who were all originally elected from the SJB.

With so many confounding factors, it came as no surprise that the outcome on the Second Reading of the Budget was watched with great interest. While there was some anxiety within the ranks of the Government, it would still have been an uphill task for the Opposition to muster a majority.

That is because the MPs of the entire Opposition and those who defected would have had to vote in unison with the singular purpose of defeating the Budget, for it to be rejected. With Opposition parties expressing different political views and agendas, that was always going to be a tall order.

At the final count, the Budget was approved comfortably by 121 votes to 84. Several MPs were absent or abstained from voting. This reflected the popular sentiment that while the Government was certainly not at the height of its popularity, the Opposition was equally divided in both its policies and strategies.

Basil’s return

In this context, yet another crucial event occurred this week: the return to the country of former Finance Minister and the SLPP’s founder and chief political strategist, Basil Rajapaksa. Rajapaksa, a dual citizen of Sri Lanka and the United States, was away in the United States for several months.

The recent passage of the 21st Amendment to the Constitution (presented initially to Parliament by Justice Minister Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe as the 22nd Amendment) meant that Basil Rajapaksa, who resigned his Parliamentary Seat on June 9, would be ineligible to return to the Legislature.

As such, there was much conjecture as to what the former Finance Minister’s role in Sri Lankan politics would be. It had been suggested that he would be compelled to take a backseat now and watch from the sidelines as he was no longer entitled to be elected or nominated to Parliament.

However, Rajapaksa returned to Sri Lanka to a hero’s welcome on Sunday, November 20. Many SLPP MPs were at hand at the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) to welcome him and the reception accorded to him suggests that he still enjoys a significant following among the SLPP Parliamentary Group.

It is also quite possible that Basil Rajapaksa’s presence in Sri Lanka and his ability to persuade his Parliamentary colleagues was a factor in the Budget being passed by Parliament in relative comfort despite the Opposition enjoying the support of many defecting MPs, at least on paper.

Buoyed by the passage of the Budget at its Second Reading on Tuesday, the Government will now be bracing itself for its final vote, that of the third reading, on December 8. That too will be awaited eagerly but it will be less of a surprise when it is passed, given the result of the vote on Tuesday.

The events of the past few days in Parliament are a reflection of how volatile Sri Lanka’s political climate is now. Still, the country has done well to emerge from the dark days of a virtual shutdown of the country to its current state, slowly trying to find its feet again, politically and economically.


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