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This is my Nation


Budget battle ends, survival race begins

But for the government too, the Budget battle may have just ended offering some respite. But the war is far from over. It must know that given the current volatile and extremely fluid situation in Parliament, every vote from here on, will be a test of survival. That may not be a palatable or practical option in the long term, and a general election sometime next year is looking extremely likely. The ruling party cannot of course go to the people in the present climate, with the rising cost of living eroding its popularity significantly. The easiest way to overcome this hurdle would be to follow British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s slogan of, ‘win a war and win an election’…

The curtain finally fell last week on the political drama that was the Budget debate, but not before a few acts of defiance and deviousness that will have a significant impact on events in the months to come.

The final score of the third reading of the Budget will note that it was quite comfortably passed by a majority of 47 votes, in contrast to the relatively close call at the second reading just a few weeks ago, when it was approved by a majority of 16 votes.
But the vote on Friday had its surprises and some of them emerged even before the quorum bells sounded in Parliament. First, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) Leader Minister Rauff Hakeem, resigned and crossed over to the opposition along with three colleagues, although two other SLMC parliamentarians opted to remain in government ranks.

Then, hours before the final vote, National Heritage Minister and heir to the Bandaranaike dynasty, Anura Bandaranaike, crossed over to the opposition. If that set the tone for the political theatre that was being enacted, then it turned into a tragi-comedy when the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), decided to abstain from voting—thus ensuring an easy passage for the Budget.
Those in the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration will publicly proclaim a great victory citing the 47 vote majority, but in reality they will also know that their numbers have dwindled from 118 votes on November 19 to 114 last week, and that this number is perilously close to the 111 that would make it a minority in Parliament.

They will also realise that the departure of the Rauff Hakeem faction of the SLMC, does not augur well; Hakeem does not usually side with a losing cause, and abides by the Saumyamoorthy Thondaman doctrine of being with the winner and then asking for more.

Hakeem’s position is more complicated than that of the Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC) because of the various factions in the SLMC, but despite his defiance, the government would do well to woo him instead of trying to vanquish him. The latter was the evident option last week with the state media indulging in a bout of Hakeem bashing that appeared to be a knee-jerk reaction to his departure.

On the plus side for the government though, it was able to retain the loyalties of the notoriously fickle Arumugam Thondaman and his CWC. That the plantation sector based party chose to remain with the Rajapaksa regime, is doubly significant, given the government’s strong pro-war stance in recent times. Even so, those who know Thondaman (Jnr.) say his assurances only hold for the day.

Also a worry for the government, is the cross-over of Anura Bandaranaike, the purpose of which is not quite apparent and it is probably so for Bandaranaike himself. Bandaranaike is a hot air balloon which lets off steam in a hurry. His previous resignation after which he called the cabinet, ‘a circus of clowns,’ was followed by a meek re-entry and the acceptance of the nebulous portfolio of National Heritage.

But perhaps most telling was the decision of the JVP to abstain. In the run up to the final Budget vote, the Marxist party was making all the right noises and announcing that they saw no reason to change their stance from what it was a few weeks ago, and many believed the JVP could not engage in a volte-face, without losing its credibility in the eyes of the public.
It is in fact not difficult to fathom the reasons for the JVP’s decision. Had the JVP voted against the Budget, it may have persuaded a few Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) dissidents to change their minds and follow suit, resulting in a defeat for the government at the vote. If that happened, a general election, at which the JVP’s numbers in Parliament would be drastically reduced, would ensue.

The biggest loser from Friday’s vote may eventually be the JVP. For all their fire and brimstone rhetoric about the ineffectiveness of the Rajapaksa government, they have displayed to the country at large that they are now as opportunistic as the SLFP, CWC, SLMC or the United National Party (UNP), when it relates to matters of their own perks and privileges.
As for the UNP and the Mangala Samaraweera faction of the SLFP, there is no doubt the vote was a huge disappointment. That Samaraweera is finding it difficult to deliver the numbers from the SLFP is now obvious, and UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe must surely be pondering the wisdom of entertaining the Samaraweera faction at the cost of antagonising some of his own party seniors.

But for the government too, the Budget battle may have just ended offering some respite. But the war is far from over. It must know that given the current volatile and extremely fluid situation in Parliament, every vote from here on, will be a test of survival. That may not be a palatable or practical option in the long term, and a general election sometime next year is looking extremely likely.

The ruling party cannot of course go to the people in the present climate, with the rising cost of living eroding its popularity significantly. The easiest way to overcome this hurdle would be to follow British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s slogan of, ‘win a war and win an election.’ It worked for Thatcher with the Falklands war; whether it will do so for Mahinda Rajapaksa with the Eelam war remains to be seen.

****