President and Finance Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe Succeeds in Getting interim budget passed with 115 Majority; 120 MPs from Different Parties Vote for while 5 from JVP and ACTC vote against.Most MPs Abstain or are Absent

By Sandun Jayawardana

President and Finance Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s interim budget, with ambitious goals of significantly increasing government revenue and reducing public debt by 2025, was passed by Parliament on Friday (2) in a vote where many in the opposition chose to abstain.

National Peoples’ Power (NPP) Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake asked for a division on the second reading of the interim budget, known as the Appropriation (Amendment) Bill at the end of a three-day debate on Friday evening. The bill was passed by a majority of 115 votes, with 120 MPs voting for and just five against.

The three NPP MPs were joined by the two MPs from the All Ceylon Tamil Congress in voting against the bill. There were 43 abstentions. The main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) chose to abstain, as did 13 Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) MPs led by former minister Dullas Alahapperuma who had crossed the floor on August 31 to sit with the opposition. MPs representing the group led by former Minister Wimal Weerawansa also chose to abstain. MPs from the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) were not present when the vote was taken.

Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) Chairman and former President Maithripala Sirisena, General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekara and Shan Wijeyalal De Silva were not present at the time of voting.

However, most other SLFP MPs, including Ministers Nimal Siripala De Silva and Mahinda Amaraweera, as well as Lasantha Alagiyawanna, Ranjith Siyambalapitiya, Duninda Dissanayake, Chamara Sampath Dasanayake and Shantha Bandara voted for the interim budget.

Opening the three-day debate on Wednesday, SJB MP Dr Harsha De Silva blamed mismanagement and corruption by the Rajapaksa administration for the country’s dire economic crisis. He however, noted that the problem had started as far back as the 1990s, when successive governments adopted protectionist economic policies and handed out government jobs for votes.

“Today, people can’t survive. The government’s own data puts last month’s inflation at 80%. If someone had deposited Rs. 100, 000 in a bank, the value of that Rs. 100, 000 has fallen to Rs. 30, 000 within the span of a year from August 2021 to August 2022. It is not wrong to say that 70% of the people’s savings have been robbed by the Rajapaksas,” he claimed.

Dr De Silva was also sceptical about prospects of President Wickremesinghe being able to implement his economic principles due to the “frog in the well” mentality of the Rajapaksas and their SLPP, of which the President is a prisoner. “Whether we like it or not, we think the President’s efforts will be in vain,” he opined.

President Wickremesinghe’s interim budget speech only contained “piecemeal solutions,” declared Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa.

“There’s nothing in this speech about fiscal consolidation. Nothing about how we are going to face hyper inflation. There aren’t any steps to rectify our regressive tax regime. We have lost over USD 4 billion in foreign remittances. There was nothing about how we can recover that.”

Mr Premadasa also said that the all-party government proposed by the President was a mess and instead called for the implementation of an all-party programme.

With the passage of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, the power of the Executive grew to a level where they could not be restrained by either the Cabinet or Parliament, said Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe. He opined that the economic crisis was exacerbated as a result of one person taking decisions due to having unrestrained power.

The government was now working on a range of urgent legal reforms, including strengthening laws on declaration of assets and liabilities, and modernising the Bribery Commission, he added.
Though the budget speech promised a subsidy for kerosene, no funds have been allocated for it in the bill, Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP M.A. Sumanthiran noted.

“The whole approach of this government is to silence the middle class and upper middle class. So, you are making petrol available now. You’re making super diesel available now. But diesel is in short supply and there is no kerosene. Your priority must be the other way round.”

Mr Sumanthiran charged that the government was trying to silence the middle class and upper middle class because it believes it can then get away with “blue murder,” pointing out how police are being deployed in their thousands to stifle peaceful protests.

Foreign Minister Ali Sabry meanwhile, claimed there was a conspiracy afoot to remove Central Bank Governor Dr Nandalal Weerasinghe. Mr Sabry said he takes responsibility for the decision to declare Sri Lanka as a bankrupt country when he served as Finance Minister and stressed he will not allow officials to be victimised based on that.

“I can see there is some sort of a conspiracy to get rid of him. I don’t think we are in agreement with that. I am glad that the President and Finance Minister stood by him, working hand in hand,” he remarked.

NPP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake renewed his call for an early general election and a fresh people’s mandate to resolve the crisis. He also sharply criticised the government as one that has no proper plan to revive the economy.

“They applauded when VAT was reduced to 8%, and now when it s raised to 15%. They applauded when the retirement age of government servants was raised to 65 years, and again when it was reduced to 60 years. They approve statements that new recruits should be added to the public sector and also statements that public sector jobs must be slashed.” Mr Dissanayake stressed.

“You have neither plan nor vision. All you care about is remaining in power. Can the country recover from a crisis of this magnitude with such a group in charge?”

Whatever government was in power, for decades, the country has been taking local and foreign loans to finance unsustainable expenses, said Minister of Transport and Highways Bandula Gunawardana. “This is not a recent problem, nor is it something created by the Rajapaksas.”

He noted that compared to the previous 21 years, salaries and pension payments in 2020 had increased by 633% while interest payments had jumped by 1376%. Loan repayments had increased by 1257% and capital expenditure by 1044%. But country revenue has only increased by 593%.

The minister expressed optimism regarding the staff level agreement reached with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) but warned that the path ahead will be difficult. Parliament will reconvene on September 6.

Courtesy:Sunday Times