Budget strains SLFP-SLPP alliance

The conclusion of the Budget 2019 has managed to stir the country’s political pot regardless of whether it is the United National Front (UNF) Government, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, Tamil National Alliance (TNA), or the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). The 2019 Budget process and the final vote will play a crucial role when taking the next step for all these political parties.

Be that as it may, the most challenging political hurdle will be faced by President Maithripala Sirisena and his SLFP as well as the SLPP-led by former President, Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa. The two parties are currently engaged in an endeavour to forge an alliance that is expected to build a formidable election front that would work towards ousting the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe-led UNF Government.

After holding several rounds of talks, the SLFP and SLPP last month managed to formulate a common policy document that is pending approval from both political parties. Also, the next round of talks between the two three-member committees representing the SLFP and SLPP are scheduled to take place this Wednesday (10).

However, the final Budget vote and the SLFP’s decision to abstain from voting are now threatening the proposed SLFP-SLPP alliance.

The SLPP, at the first round of talks held soon after the second reading vote on the 2019 Budget early last month, called on the SLFP to cast its vote against the Budget presented by the UNF Government.

The SLPP believed that while such a vote would serve as a confidence-building mechanism between the SLFP and SLPP, it would also give weight to the alliance in the making – which is based on forming a common front against the United National Party (UNP).

Even during the last round of talks, the SLPP reiterated its call for the SLFP to vote against the 2019 Budget, stating that forming an alliance to defeat the UNF would not make sense if one stakeholder failed to vote against the UNF Budget.

The SLFP during these discussions maintained that the matter was under discussion and a final decision on the last vote on the budget would be made after considering all political issues.

Last week, the run up to the final Budget vote was a crucial period for the SLFP and SLPP. It was make or break time.

The first signs of the problems in the making surfaced last Tuesday (2) when the SLFP MPs group met to discuss the party’s stance that Friday (5) under the patronage of Party Leader Sirisena.

Addressing the gathering, the President explained that it was a difficult decision since he held three portfolios in the present Cabinet and a decision to vote against the Budget by SLFP MPs would have an adverse political impact as a result.

Sirisena has further explained that the allocation of funds for the Grama Shakthi programme initiated by him would help the SLFP organisers since they no longer had state patronage.

“The Grama Shakthi programme has helped SLFP organisers and that needs to continue. Therefore, it would be better for the SLFP to abstain from voting,” the President has said.

While a majority had agreed with the President, MPs Thilanga Sumathipala and Dilan Perera expressed their displeasure at the statement.

Sumathipala has said there was no need to have called a meeting if the President’s decision was final. “This could have been conveyed to us by telephone,” Sumathipala has said in a lighter vein.

It was evident that the SLFP MPs who have been pushing for an alliance between the SLPP were weary of the President’s remarks since they knew the adverse impact it would have on the alliance in the making.

Nevertheless, it was the view of a majority of the MPs that it would be politically unwise to vote against the Budget since it cannot be defeated and also since it included several expenditure heads under the President.

Joint meeting

However, it was then decided to hold a joint meeting of the SLFP and “Joint Opposition” parliamentarians along with the Opposition Leader on Thursday (4).

When the Thursday meeting convened, Sirisena noted that the final Budget vote was a primary issue and that focus should be given to the formation of a strong force against the Government.

MPs of the “Joint Opposition” reiterated that the SLFP should vote against the 2019 Budget. The SLFP MPs argued that the UNF Government had the numbers to pass the Budget together with the TNA and that the President’s expenditure heads were also part of the 2019 Budget.

The President had once again voiced his displeasure at the UNF Government, saying that his observations on the land (special provisions) legislation have been ignored by the Government and steps have been taken to gazette it without addressing his concerns.

Sirisena has explained that the Lands Ministry Secretary, when contacted, had been dumbfounded and unable to respond to the queries.

According to the President, the Prime Minister had manipulated the situation to get the legislation gazetted ignoring the amendments proposed by him at the Cabinet meeting. Sirisena went on to say that measures could be taken to cancel the gazette since the legislation had not received Cabinet approval.

Both, SLFP and “Joint Opposition” MPs have together told the President that he had to stand firm on the matter.

After listening to the President’s continuous complaints about the UNF Government and the conduct of the Prime Minister, Rajapaksa had said: “I thought it was you who won after defeating me.” Rajapaksa’s words had silenced the room.

Finally, the joint meeting on Thursday ended without a final decision being taken on the final Budget vote the following day.

A group of SLFP MPs had later met the President and it was finally decided that the party would abstain from voting at the final Budget vote.

But SLFP MPs, Dilan Perera, S.B. Dissanayake, and Lakshman Wasantha Perera decided to ignore the presidential directive and voted against the 2019 Budget.

Alliance in the balance

The SLFP decision to abstain from voting at the final Budget vote has now put the proposed SLFP-SLPP alliance in a somewhat precarious situation.

The statement made by Rajapaksa soon after the final Budget vote on Friday indicated the strained relations.

Rajapaksa said that the SLFP would have decided to abstain from voting since the Budget was presented by the Government headed by the President. He clearly stated that it was Sirisena who had taken the final for the SLFP to abstain from voting. “It is the President’s responsibility,” he observed.

“The Government will continue in this manner, but will be thrown out when there’s an election,” Rajapaksa said.

As for whether the discussion between the SLFP-SLPP would continue, given the SLFP’s stance at the Budget, the Opposition Leader noted that the dialogue will not stall, but that they’ll “have to see” how to move forward.

He further noted that the final struggle to overthrow the Government would be a joint effort as a broad alliance.

However, Rajapaksa did not elaborate on the composition of the alliance.

UPFA MPs in the “Joint Opposition” Ranjith Soysa and Wimal Weerawansa said the SLFP stance at the Budget was to ensure victory for the UNF Government.

The next round of talks is scheduled to take place on Wednesday (10) giving the impression that both Sirisena and Rajapaksa are both working towards a bigger picture that goes beyond a Budget vote.

Meanwhile, the SLFP and SLPP will hold two separate May Day rallies.
The SLFP has decided to hold its May Day rally in Gampaha while the SLPP is looking at a venue in Colombo.

Making two thirds

Be that as it may, the final vote on the 2019 Budget also brought out an interesting scenario that is now being discussed in several political circles. That is of the possibility of forming a two-thirds majority in the House without the inclusion of the Rajapaksa-led “Joint Opposition”.

The 119 polled in favour of the 2019 Budget included the votes of the UNF, TNA, and CWC while a majority of the members who abstained were the pro-Sirisena SLFP MPs – the total of which stands at 150 seats in Parliament.

The scenario has resulted in the JVP refocusing on pushing the 20th Amendment to the Constitution on the abolition of the executive presidency.

The UNF it is learnt has expressed its support to the JVP to get the proposed amendment passed in the House.
The decisive force in the final outcome of the 20th Amendment is now the pro-Sirisena SLFP lot.

Rajapaksa, after initially expressing support to the 20th Amendment, had to make a u-turn following the opposition raised by some of the MPs in the “Joint Opposition”. The stumbling block that was created by the change of heart in the Rajapaksa camp over the 20th Amendment is now being cast aside by the renewed hope following the final Budget vote.

Interestingly, the proverbial ball is now in Sirisena’s court, since it is his decision and his ability to hold his flock together that would finally get the proposed 20th Amendment passed in Parliament with the required two-thirds majority.

More portfolios?

The UNF Government meanwhile is looking at increasing the number of portfolios by adding on several new state ministers to the fold.

The Government is yet to assign portfolios to UPFA MPs A.H.M. Fowzie, Piyasena Gamage, Wijithamuni Soyza, and Lakshman Seneviratne who joined the UNF during the 51-day coup last year. It is in this backdrop that the UNF Government had prepared a list of six MPs to be appointed as state ministers.

Apart from the SLFP MPs, it is learnt that the names of UNF MPs Palitha Range Bandara and Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka have been included in the list of proposed ministers.

The media has reported that the list had been sent to the President last Tuesday. However, there has not been any communication on the President’s response to it.

However, it is learnt that a discussion on forming a national government had taken place recently in Kandy when the President and Prime Minister had met at Minister Malik Samarawickrema’s residence. Wickremesinghe had visited Samarawickrema’s residence in Kandy before attending an event organised to felicitate Minister Sajith Premadasa. The President had arrived at Samarawickrema’s residence unannounced with the Chairman of Hilton Colombo.

The Premier had said that they were all going in for lunch and invited Sirisena to join them; the latter had said he was after lunch and had politely declined the invitation.

Wickremesinghe, when inquired about the unexpected meeting by several party seniors, had said it was just a brief one during lunch.

However, unconfirmed reports state that a few words were exchanged on the possibility of returning to a national government and moving forward with the development work that would in turn benefit both the UNP and the SLFP.

The President has so far not made any indications of such a move.

Sampanthan to CC

TNA Leader, MP R. Sampanthan’s name has been proposed to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of UPFA MP Chamal Rajapaksa in the Constitutional Council (CC).

The CC, headed by Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, met on Friday (5) at the parliamentary complex. It was at this meeting that the Council has discussed the need to fill the vacancy created by Chamal’s departure and it was then proposed that Sampanthan should be appointed to the CC.

During the CC meeting, the Speaker had informed the other members that he had held discussions with the National Police Commission and the Office on Reparations on the functions of both institutions.

However, the CC is scheduled to meet once more this month in order to discuss the appointment of a new Chief Justice following Chief Justice Nalin Perera’s retirement at the end of the month as well as the appointment of a new Auditor General.