When President Mahinda Rajapaksa walked into Parliament on Thursday afternoon to present his fourth Budget, he would undoubtedly have been a happy man. Between November last year and this November, the political landscape has altered a lot to his government's advantage, with the President managing to neutralise many of his political opponents in Parliament on one hand and his push for “an honourable peace” with the military efforts against the LTTE too making steady progress, on the other.
Smiles all around after Budget speech
It would have been a pleasing sight for the President to see the former JVP Propaganda Secretary Wimal Weerawansa who wound up last year’s Budget speech comparing successive governments that ruled this country to fleas which had taken turns to suck the people’s blood, now more or less entrenched on his side and one time LTTE eastern leader Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan alias Karuna relegated to a back bench in the Legislature, docilely listening to the President’s speech.
The only thing that momentarily distracted the president, just before he began his speech, was an attempt by Tamil National Alliance Parliamentary group Leader R. Sampanathn to make a statement against the military operations in the north before leading a walkout of his party, from the Legislature. Mr.Sampanthan said the walkout was in protest and condemnation of the “genocide” of the people in the “Tamil Nation.”
As expected, the main focus of the President’s Budget speech was what he called the “humanitarian operation” that was launched by the security forces, first in the east and now in the north, to liberate the people from the “brutal grip of terror” and included a plea to the “terrorists to lay down arms and join the democratic process, even at this last moment” or face military defeat. Speaking in Tamil, the President appealed to the people living in uncleared areas in the north to also join hands with the government to assist them.
Next, the President focussed on the alternate strategy he had introduced through the “Mahinda Chintanaya” to strengthen the domestic economy and domestic identity, while distancing himself from neo liberal policies that were followed during the past three decades.
Concessions to the public came mainly in the form of reductions in fuel prices, relief on power and water bills and marginal increase in allowances to public servants, pensioners and security force personnel. While these announcements were well received by government members, many on the Opposition side showed little reaction.
Next day, both the UNP and the JVP announced their opposition to the Budget saying it gave little relief to the people. JVP MP Sunil Handunetti said allocations to important ministries such as health, education, justice, plantation industries, social welfare have been slashed, while allocations to the Office of the President have risen sharply. “Many ministers have now been reduced to the level of ‘yes men’ with no funds to do any work,” he said. The JVP MP also derided the words the president quoted from the Mahinda Chintanaya on “developing man towards preserving the family” saying the only family that would be preserved under this Budget would be the Rajapaksa family of Medamulane.
But his party’s former strongman Wimal Weerawansa saw a silver living in the Budget in the form of a move towards developing and strengthening the national economy. As someone who has espoused this vision for many years, Mr.Weerawansa said, he feels somewhat vindicated on seeing the global economic downturn caused by the failure of neo liberal economic policies and a move once again towards strengthening domestic economies. Whether Mr.Weerawansa was making an attempt to compare himself to the 17th Century astronomer Italian Galileo Galilei who was condemned by the Church for his theory that the Earth revolved around the Sun - contrary to Church teachings and had the Church expressing regret over the affair in 1992, it is not clear but Mr.Weerwansa however cited the case during the course of his speech. He did so with reference to his continued advocacy for a strong national economy and how this was in fact happening now under this President.
The high defence expenditure was criticized by TNA MP Suresh Premachandran who accused the government of spending money to launch attacks on Tamil civilians. Responding to this, Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama said the money was meant to fight terrorism and not civilians .UNP MP Ravi Karunanayaka said the Budget served neither the people in the state sector nor the private sector and would plunge the country further into debt.
Deputy Finance Minister Ranjith Siyambalapitiya who spoke on behalf of the government spent most of the time allocated to him, to criticize the alternate Budget proposal put forward by the UNP a day before the Budget, recalling the UNP’s failure to provide jobs to people during their time in government while giving tax amnesties to big time businessmen.
With another week left for the debate on the second reading of the Appropriation Bill before a vote is taken, there will be many such speeches delivered from the floor of the House. While the Budget may have given little by way of relief to the public at large, all that the Opposition will be able to do will be to criticize it because this time it is in no position to pose any real threat to the government by way of defeating the Budget.