Budget battle ends, survival race
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
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
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.