The budget contains allocations for the Office of the President Maithripala Sirisena and two other Ministries –Environment and Mahaweli Development and the Defence- headed by him (Reuters)
Initially, it was anticipated that the Government would have a hard time in roping in the MPs to get its 2019 Budget passed in Parliament. If anyone expected such a fiasco during the Budget vote for the Government, it was well with reason because the ruling the United National Party (UNP) was commanding the support of 107 MPs on its roll, falling short of six more to cross the simple majority mark. But, the Budget had a comfortable passage through Parliament in its first round of vote after the Second Reading on Tuesday evening with the backing of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) in the opposition and two members of the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) who were elected on the UPFA ticket.
But, things looked arduous for the main opposition The United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) to get its act together regarding the Budget. It decided to vote against the Budget, but there was a sharp division of opinion within it.
- Instead, these MPs said that they should vote in favour of the heads of expenditures for the President and his ministries
- Later, a group of UPFA MPs still representing the Sri Lanka Freedom Party(SLFP) conducted a secret meeting
- SLFP stalwarts including the likes of Chief Opposition Whip Mahinda Amaraweera, Nimal Siripala de Silva and Ranjith Siyambalapitiya were absent
As a whole, the party stood for defeating the Budget right from the beginning. However, the budget contains allocations for the Office of the President Maithripala Sirisena and the two Ministries – Environment and Mahaweli Development and the Defence- headed by him as the head of the Government. The President is none other than the UPFA Leader. In the event of the UPFA voting against the Budget, it amounts to saying no to the allocations even to the President’s Office and his Ministries. As a result, it was somewhat difficult for the main opposition to firm up its position. For the UPFA faction loyal to Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa, it was a foregone conclusion that the Budget should be defeated forthwith.
During internal discussions on the Budget, the party segment which is loyal to President Sirisena wanted to stay away from the vote on the budget after its Second Reading. The argument spelled out was that the budget contained allocations meant for the President and his Ministries, and therefore the UPFA had no moral basis to reject the budget in toto.
Instead, these MPs said that they should vote in favour of the heads of expenditures for the President and his ministries during the third reading or the committee stage of the Budget.
Despite arguments to and fro, the dominant opinion was that the party, as the main opposition, should play the role of the opposition, and there it should vote against the Budget. Alongside, it held the view that no one should indirectly support the Budget hence should be absent during the vote or abstain from voting.
It was the final position arrived at the UPFA parliamentary group meeting. Later, a group of UPFA MPs still representing the Sri Lanka Freedom Party(SLFP) conducted a secret meeting and decided to be absent during the vote, contrary to the final stand of the UPFA .
A sharp rift emerged even within the SLFP group which wanted to be absent when four of them - Dilan Perera, Lakshman Wasantha Perera, Nisantha Mutuhettigama and Sriyani Wijewickrama- sided with the UPFA’s decision and voted against the budget.
SLFP stalwarts including the likes of Chief Opposition Whip Mahinda Amaraweera, Nimal Siripala de Silva and Ranjith Siyambalapitiya were absent.
Such contrasts in approaches to the issues at hand have come out between the factions of the UPFA when there are talks scheduled for today to make a new political formation as a front against the UNP ahead of the presidential elections.
The proposed alliance is meant for all the anti-UNP parties and groups to band together in view of the next elections. The Mahinda Rajapaksa faction of the UPFA or Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) is one key stakeholder of this alliance to be cobbled with the SLFP led by President Sirisena.
This is the second round of talks between the teams appointed by the two parties to be conducted today in Colombo. The SLPP has hardened its position that it will not compromise its identity and symbol. Alongside, it said that only one of its members would be fielded as the presidential candidate. As such, the SLPP would go to talks today on the basis that some matters could not be negotiated. Accordingly, the SLFP will have to make hard bargaining with the SLPP team during today’s talks.
Relations between the two sides soured somewhat after SLFP General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekara was critical of the SLPP on its hard and fast positions. Jayasekara, at a public meeting in Badulla, said it would be none other than President Sirisena who would be picked by the SLFP as its presidential candidate.
Jayasekara, as the SLFP General Secretary, would have made such remarks well with the approval of the President. What Jayasekara expressed would have been the intended purpose of the President. No matter what, as things stand at the moment, the SLPP will not agree to the nomination of the President as the candidate.
The President is also mindful of it. That he has given mind of the possibility of scrapping the Executive Presidency enabling him to remain in power for another term as the ceremonial President without having elections this year.
In fact, he reportedly contemplated on the possibility of seeking approval of people by referendum to do so without having the presidential elections. But, the President was advised against such a move by his close confidantes.
Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe are also receptive to the idea that the Executive Presidency should be abolished. Let alone, both are strained by their party men from taking initiatives in this direction.
Come what may, the main parties are bracing for the presidential elections from now itself. The UNP has started its membership drive themed ‘Sirikotha Gamata’ in an ostensible move to recapture its lost ground in rural areas.