Spotlight on crucial Budget Vote today | Daily News

Spotlight on crucial Budget Vote today

The Third Reading of Budget 2023 is scheduled to conclude in Parliament today. The debates leading up to it have been both robust and revealing with the Government facing scrutiny and criticism from the Opposition amidst a political landscape that has been continually changing in the past few months.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe who is also the Minister of Finance has been a keen and active participant in the Budget debate, taking Parliament by surprise. It is not a practice adopted by his predecessors although some of them also held the Finance portfolio when they were President.

In doing so, the President was often criticised by the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), the main Opposition party, which comprises mostly of his political proteges when they were in the United National Party (UNP). Ironically, the President was supported by the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP).

There has been speculation about the growing rapport between President Wickremesinghe and the SLPP. They were thrown into Government together when former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa asked Wickremesinghe to become Prime Minister following the resignation of former Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa.

SLPP’s support to President

When Gotabaya Rajapaksa left the country on July 9 and resigned from office four days later by email from Singapore, by virtue of being Prime Minister at the time of Rajapaksa’s resignation, Wickremesinghe became Acting President. A week later, support from the SLPP Parliamentary Group saw him become President.

Since then, President Wickremesinghe has been deftly negotiating a political tightrope walk for several months. If the SJB expected the President to reach out to them- his erstwhile colleagues - and form a Government with a majority of SJB MPs in it, they would have been disappointed.

Instead, the President remained with the SLPP, the party that delivered him the 134 votes that were required to clinch the Presidency from his closest rival, Dullas Alahapperuma, also of the SLPP. In fact, he has retained almost the entire Cabinet appointed by former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa except for former Foreign Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris, who is now a dissident SLPP MP.

The President did invite the SJB and other political parties to join his Government. But this was on the basis of forming an ‘All-Party Government” (APG) where the SLPP would still have a majority of Ministers in the Cabinet. The invitation was declined by both the SJB and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and also the TNA.

The issue of enhancing the Cabinet, for which there is Constitutional provision, has come up for discussion time and again since President Wickremesinghe took office. Momentum has gathered on this dialogue since the return to the country of the SLPP’s chief political strategist former Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa.

Rajapaksa resigned from Parliament on June 9. He is also a United States (US) citizen and is now unable to return to the Legislature as Parliament has approved the 21st Amendment to the Constitution. This bars Dual Citizens from holding elected office. Three members of the Rajapaksa family also voted in favour of the 21st Amendment, although former PM Mahinda Rajapaksa abstained.

Rajapaksa was to pay a rare tribute to President Wickremesinghe last week, while attending an event at the SLPP head office at Nelum Mawatha, Battaramulla. He acknowledged that the SLPP voted for Wickremesinghe in Parliament and said later events have proved that the correct choice was made.

“He (President Wickremesinghe) was the most suitable person in Parliament at that time. He has allowed both the ruling party and the Opposition to engage in politics. We hope that he will be able to resolve the economic difficulties faced by the country as well,” Basil Rajapaksa declared.

Referring to the various splinter groups within the SLPP Parliamentary Group, Rajapaksa reiterated that the party was not divided. Prof. G.L. Peiris is still the President of the Party, he said and observed light-heartedly that the SLPP slogan “Do Not Fear to Think Differently” has perhaps been taken too literally.

Asked whether he was planning a return to Parliament, Rajapaksa dismissed this, noting this was not possible with the passage of the 21st Amendment. “I won’t remain in Government but I will remain in politics,” the youngest of the senior Rajapaksa siblings in politics said.

However, former Minister Basil Rajapaksa urged SLPP members to prepare for elections of whatever type. Elections are always a test of the popularity of a political party and the SLPP is actively readying itself for polls, Rajapaksa said. He is known to have actively mobilised the Party’s extensive grassroots network since his recent return to the country recently.

Local Government elections

Elections that are due in the near future are the Local Government (LG) polls which must be held early next year. Elections for over 300 LG bodies throughout the country were last held in February 2018. The SLPP swept the board at those elections while the UNP came a distant second.

There has been speculation that elections to LG bodies will be deferred. This is because of legal impediments following changes made to legislation governing these polls. These amendments required a Delimitation Committee (DC) to define new boundaries for the LG bodies. This is still ongoing.

The DC was appointed by Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena in November. It is headed by former head of the National Elections Commission (NEC), Mahinda Deshapriya. This Committee is expected to submit their report by the end of February, enabling the conduct of LG elections.

Due to the legalities involved in the conduct of the LG polls, the Chairman of the NEC S. G. Punchihewa had sought an opinion from the Attorney General (AG). That opinion has now been received and will be discussed with the Members of the NEC, Punchihewa said.

“I don’t know whether there will be any legal impediments in the days to come but the NEC is determined to issue the gazette notification by January 9 to conduct the much-delayed LG elections on time. The NEC is constitutionally mandated to hold elections on time and not to postpone them,” Punchihewa said.

One of the prerequisites to hold the LG polls, the preparation of voters’ lists of the 2022 Electoral Register under the wards system, will be completed in the next few days, Punchihewa said. There are no financial issues that would cause a delay in the LG polls as Rs.10 billion has been allocated to the NEC, he said.

If the LG elections are conducted on schedule, they will be the first countrywide elections since the General Elections (GE) in August 2020. That poll was conducted in a climate where campaigning by political parties was hampered to a great extent due the then widely-prevalent COVID-19 pandemic.

The country’s political demographic has altered considerably since then. The popularity of the SLPP, which won a near two-thirds majority at the 2020 GE is thought to have dipped due to the events that occurred earlier this year, culminating in the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

In addition, the SLPP Parliamentary Group has split into at least five splinter groups: the parent party of the SLPP, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) group, the Nidahasa Jathika Sabhawa (NJS), the Uttara Lanka Sabhagaya (ULS) and another faction led by former Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, which has pledged to work with the SJB.

However, as recent votes in Parliament demonstrated, most Members elected on the SLPP ticket in 2020 still remain with the parent party. The popularity of the SLPP has not been tested electorally since then and it is this unknown factor that former Minister Basil Rajapaksa has been keen to address.

The UNP, which won just a solitary National List seat at the August 2020 poll, has seen a resurgence of its fortunes. This is with the appointment of Ranil Wickremesinghe as President. The party is now earnestly regrouping and re-organising with hopes of an improved performance at the next national elections.

The SJB has had mixed fortunes. With all the political upheaval in the past months affecting the rival SLPP, it was expecting an increase in popular support. However, there is also a public perception that the SJB has failed to capitalise on recent events and has therefore not emerged as a clear alternative.

The SJB must also factor in the defections of Ministers Harin Fernando and Manusha Nanayakkara and State Minister Diana Gamage. Of them, Gamage’s Seat in Parliament is under a legal challenge. Ministers Fernando and Nanayakkara are widely expected to rejoin the UNP under President Wickremesinghe’s leadership.

A fate similar to that of the SJB has befallen the JVP. There was a surge of popularity for the party during the political unrest leading to Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation but the party has failed to maximise this potential. As a result, the momentum in favour of the JVP appears to have dissipated now.

The past few months saw many landmark changes in Sri Lankan politics including the resignation of an Executive President for the first time. As such, the first few months of 2023 will be watched with great interest as the country heads towards more important elections due in 2024 and 2025.

 


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