No jeers but little cheers and Well-protest herald Budget
When President Mahinda Rajapaksa came to Parliament on Thursday to present his second budget, it was quite a contrast from a year ago when the newly elected President made a jubilant entry to the chamber amidst loud cheering from government as well as opposition members with cameras rolling and lights flashing to capture the historic moment.
What greeted him on Thursday instead was a half-hearted welcome by government members, sullen –faced opposition members, placard-carrying Tamil legislators staging a ‘satyagraha’ and only the state media to cover his budget presentation. The private media cameras were kept out of the gallery, obviously to keep the focus on the budget and off the protestors.
In a one and a half hour-long speech, the President unveiled plans for a ten year national development strategy based on the “Mahinda Chintanaya”. But he too would have been disappointed with the less than enthusiastic response he received even from his government members.
In addition the sight of members of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) sitting right across him in the Well of the House carrying placards with slogans such as “Stop state terrorism”, “Don’t starve the Tamils,” “Restore North east merger”, “Open A 9 Road,” was a stark reminder to the President as well as government members of some major hurdles that are standing in the way of the country‘s economic success.
When the debate on the budget began on Friday, the lackadaisical attitude continued not only among MPs but also government officials--with the Officials Box in Parliament being empty for nearly an hour after the debate began. Half a day into the five day debate, the quorum bells had to be rung to get the required 20 members into the chambers to keep sittings going, unprecedented for the first day of debate on the most important Bill to come before Parliament for the year. The UNP, despite its recent MOU with the President to work in co-operation with him for the next two years, could not help criticising the budget. Its criticism was led by one time deputy Finance Minister Bandula Gunawardena who said the government had failed to deliver on many of its promises made in the previous budget and has not provided any answers to the pressing problem of the ever increasing cost of living. “It’s a weak budget which will lead to further weakening of the country’s economy,” he cautioned.
The JVP, which last year was full of praise for the “Mahinda Chintanaya” but has changed its stance a great deal since then, accused the government of raising the hopes of the people prior to the budget and then failing to deliver.
“Before making new pledges for the next year we have to see how much promised in last year’s budget has been fulfilled. What is needed are realistic policies not fairy tales,” JVP Colombo district MP Sunil Handunnetti said.
He also said that out of the 50 proposals they had submitted to the President to be included in the 2007 budget, only a handful had been incorporated in it.
The JHU did not go as far as the JVP in criticising the budget but it’s MP Aturaliye Ratana Thera said that the proposals were not “meaningful “ in the context of the promises contained in the “Mahinda Chintanaya” but thanked the President for including some of their proposals in the budget.
Leader of the House Nimal Siripala de Silva opening the debate on behalf of the government said much of the criticism from the UNP was out of spite and not constructive. “We have delivered on many promises despite the numerous hurdles we have had to face in the past year. Why are not the positive aspects talked about by the UNP,” he asked.The TNA said it had little interest in the budget. Jaffna distirict MP M.K.Sivajilingam said the budget did little to ease the problems of the Tamil people. “The road to peace lies in the opening of the A 9 highway and the government must open it,” he said.
It is indeed a challenging road ahead for the government, whether the A9 is opened or remains closed.