The last hurrah
Despite the backroom drama in the run up to Friday’s crucial budget vote, Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera and his United National Party (UNP) had the last laugh with the Budget being approved by a majority of 45 members of Parliament. In the end, as expected, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) of President Maithripala Sirisena abstained from voting, leaving a final score of 119 in favour and 74 against.
Earlier, during the committee stage of the budget debate, the defeat of two expenditure heads, namely of the Ministry of Megapolis and Western Province Development and that of the Ministry of Internal and Home Affairs, Provincial Councils, and Local Government coupled with sections of the SLFP threatening to rebel against the party, created some suspense as to whether the Opposition could pull a rabbit out of the bag when it came to voting time.
However, sanity prevailed with the majority of SLFP MPs taking a more conciliatory stance towards the overtures of their Yahapalana partners to arrive at a compromise. The President himself, after his disastrous adventure with the Podujana Peramuna, is beginning to show signs of rapprochement with the UNP. In the end, all the hype and drama of the budget debate counted for naught in the final count.
The current Parliament is just recovering from the major upheaval it underwent following the extraordinary events that took place over a 51-day period from the 26 October last year. Friday’s Budget approval signalled that saner counsel seems to have returned to what has been described as one of the most volatile parliaments in recent times. Friday’s budget vote assumed significance as it is one of the constitutionally sanctioned ways in which to topple a government.
With the Budget being approved now, the ruling UNP, which is now in its fifth year, has one final opportunity to deliver on the economic front and pull Sri Lanka out of the rut. Plagued by an overwhelming debt burden, investment on infrastructure development, and public welfare spending, the Government has naturally been constrained and with in the wake of an election year Samaraweera’s job has certainly been less than enviable.
Yet, he seems to have done a decent job with the balance sheet, and the strengthening of the rupee and foreign reserves point to an economy on the mend.
Samaraweera was once one of the key election strategists of the People’s Alliance (PA) of former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. He is the equivalent of a Basil Rajapaksa with a more moderate outlook, and he certainly knows a thing or two about baiting the electorate.
Whether one likes it or not, history has proven time and again that baiting is the name of the game when it comes to elections in this country. It has worked every time in the absence of any accountability process with regard to election promises. One cannot help but remember how Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike promised rice from the moon in the 70s, how J.R. Jayewardene promised a “Dharmista” society but ended up dealing with a war on one side and a brutal insurrection on the other, how President Chandrika Kumaratunga promised bread at Rs. 3.50 a loaf but when she relinquished office, that same loaf was more than 10 times the promised price, and how President Mahinda Rajapaksa promised to abolish the executive presidency, but yet after having served two terms, tried to get his hands on the job for a third time. Ever since independence, our politicians have mastered the art of selling dreams and reaping its dividends by being elected to government office.
For all intents and purposes, Samaraweera’s Budget 2019 cannot be described as an election budget, save for the two flagship programmes – namely Enterprise Sri Lanka and Gamperaliya, which are both targeted at the rural communities.
There again, a programme of this nature, where the State invests in the people, has been long overdue. The Rajapaksa administration invested billions on building white elephants which have been of little use to the public. Samaraweera, for his part, seems to have learnt from Rajapaksa’s mistakes and has focussed on “people” development instead, which is bound to prove far more successful both electorally and in furthering the national development agenda.
Investment in education, training, as well as research and development can never go wrong. The 13 years of compulsory education which has now been made law, in-house vocational training in schools, and provision of loans for higher education of one’s choice are all in the national interest and will serve the nation well.
This is all the more significant as in another decade, one in five Sri Lankans will be over 60 years of age. The burden of an ageing population that cannot contribute to national productivity can only be offset by an educated, smart work force that can make up for the numbers through efficient practice.
We are already witnessing a severe shortage in traditional jobs such as farmers, fishermen, construction workers, etc. Many farmlands especially in the Western Province and its fringes now lie idle and abandoned due to the shortage of manpower to plough these fields.
Making the people self-sufficient through entrepreneurship is therefore an important step in building the economy of the future. Samaraweera seems to have got the right formula, but its success will depend on execution.
It’s a well-known fact that, at least in the last few years, less than 40% of budget proposals have been fully implemented in the original form. This time around, implementation will be of paramount importance as the UNP’s political fortunes will depend on it. Therefore, the Budget 2019 could well be the party’s last hurrah before it goes before the people.