Budget debate ends with the main opposition virtually non-existent

  • Internecine bickering reduces UNP MPs to merely warming their seats in the House while President derides them for their ineffectuality
By Chandani Kirinde, Our Lobby Correspondent

A month can be a long time in politics. The Budget debate which began, literally, with a bang, with fisticuffs between Government and UNP legislators on November 21, ended with a whimper, at least where the main opposition party was concerned.

Instead of the boisterous scenes that were directed at President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Government side, on the day he presented the Budget, when the President wound up the debate last Wednesday, subdued members of the UNP looked on and listened to him advise them on what was expected of them in their role in Opposition.

It’s not that the Government had done anything dramatic to correct its shortcomings between November 21 and December 21, that the UNP would choose to remain silent, but after the much publicised near warfare in the aftermath of the election of Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe as the UNP leader, its MPs seemed more like wounded animals, too exhausted to take on a Government which enjoys almost unchallenged power, well facilitated by the weaknesses in the main opposition party. And hence, the words of President Rajapaksa seemed pertinent, and he sounded almost exasperated by the lack of proper opposition to the Government.

“We need a formidable opposition that can point out our shortcomings. As far as I can see, we have a failed opposition,” the President said. And, instead of words of blame the President had for the UNP on the day he presented the Budget, when he accused it of having “placed the country on a very destructive path from 1977,” he chose to advise UNP members on the need to rally round their leader and become a proactive Opposition.

“Rather than rallying round its leader and bringing up an alternative programme against the Government’s financial plan for the next year, the opposition exposed its own divisions highlighting their personal agendas. They (UNP MPs) should at least now start to accept their democratically-elected leader and do their share for the development of this country,” the President said.

However, the President had a word of appreciation for the members of the TNA and JVP/DNA, saying that they had displayed more maturity in their participation in the Budget debates.

President Rajapaksa engaged in a friendly conversation with UNP deputy leader Sajith Premadasa and other MPs in the parliamentary complex on Wednesday.

While things remained calm on the last day of the Budget, things were more heated during the committee stage debate of the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development. It led to a physical altercation between UNP Puttalam district MP Palitha Range Bandara and UPFA parliamentarian Arundika Fernando.
The incident took place soon after MP Range Bandara wound his speech of over an hour last Monday, in which some of his comments directed at the members of the armed forces did not go down well with Government members.

As the UNP MP walked out of the Chamber, he was followed out by the UPFA parliamentarian Fernando and ended with a physical altercation in the MPs’ lobby. Later, both MPs who hail from the Puttalam District, blamed each other for having started the fight, but Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa is likely to decide on who the wrongdoer is, when the House meets next year.

The incident came a few days after the Speaker appointed a special committee headed by Senior Minister D.E.W. Gunasekera to look into how best to maintain discipline within the House, as well as ensure security of MPs. The Committee was appointed as a result of the unruly scenes that took place on the day the President presented the Budget, and resulted in the suspension of Deputy Minister Sarana Gunawardena for throwing a water bottle which fell a few feet from the President.

While the Budget debate wound up on a positive note for the Government, the year ahead will be a daunting one for the UNP, which will have to put its divisions aside and work hard, if it wants to be taken seriously by the ruling party.

For the Government, it will be a challenge to make a success of the Parliamentary Select committee it wants to get going with the intention of finding a solution to the problems of minorities, which has already been cold shouldered by the TNA, who are dissatisfied with its limited mandate.

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