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Rajapaksa to face toughest test

The budget for the year 2008 is to come up for voting on Monday, and Rajapaksa is not at all certain if it will get even the simple majority which is required, reports PK Balachandran.

world Updated: Nov 18, 2007 17:26 IST
PK Balachandran

The Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa rode to power in December 2005 on a surging wave of Sinhala majoritarian nationalism. He went on to prove his credentials as a tough cookie when he took the Tamil Tigers head-on and drove them out of the Eastern province in 2006-7.

But by year end, on the eve of the voting on the annual budget, he finds himself on a shaky political wicket in his own turf, the Sinhala-dominiated South Sri Lanka.

The budget for the year 2008 is to come up for voting on Monday, and Rajapaksa is not at all certain if it will get even the simple majority which is required.

This is because of internal dissensions, opposition from those who had been supporting the government from outside, and lack of a firm
commitment from alliance partners themselves.

As per the Sri Lankan constitution, defeat of the budget need not necessarily mean the exit of the government or the dissolution of
parliament, because the budget can be presented again by the same government or any other government which the President may cobble

And Rajapaksa's own position as President is safe, no matter what happens to the budget. He is the Executive President, directly chosen
by the people, in an election separate from the parliamentary elections. And the term of office is also not coterminous.

Loss of face feared

But a defeat of the budget will definitely mean a major loss of political credibility for the government, whose kingpin is President Rajapaksa himself.

This is because, under the Executive Presidential system, which Sri Lanka has, the President is all-powerful. The cabinet is his. He is the head of the cabinet. He can take up any ministerial portfolio he desires. This is so even when the party enjoying majority support in parliament is different and the cabinet has members from that party.

In Rajapaksa's case, the coalition he heads is also the majority group in parliament. Furthermore, Rajapaksa is the Finance and Defense Minister. Therefore, a defeat of the budget in parliament could be construed as a vote of no-confidence in him.

On the face of it, his position in parliament is unassailable as he has the numbers. In a House of 225 (including the Speaker) the ruling coalition has 117 and the Opposition only 107. But it is still not certain if all the ruling coalition MPs and Opposition MPs will vote in the way they should. There are visible cracks and not so visible cracks in the ruling coalition. As for the opposition, it is still not certain if those in it and those expected to cross vote will actually do as expected.

Enigmatic JVP holds key

The biggest enigma is the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) with 37 MPs. It has not made its final position on the voting clear. The JVP had begun as a supporter of the government, but had broken away from it on economic and ethnic issues. It has said that it will vote for the budget only if the government accepts its tough demands including the abrogation of the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) with the LTTE. Rajapaksa's bid to make the JVP see reason on this issue has failed.

Many parties and MPs are said to be waiting to see what the JVP will do. If the JVP decides to vote against, the dissidents will gather
courage. If not, they will lie low. If it abstains, as it well might, Rajapaksa will be home and dry.

The parties of the minorities which are part of government, like the Ceylon Workers' Congress (representing the Indian Origin Tamils), and the largest Muslim party the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), are sitting on the fence. They want to see which way the wind will blow on Monday. These minority parties see the Rajapaksa regime as a Sinhala majoritarian outfit bent on a military solution of the Tamil problem but they are with the government out of sheer fear.

Cracks seen in SLFP

The largest party in the ruling coalition, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) is divided, though an open and large-scale revolt is not
apparent. Several party stalwarts are unhappy with the extraordinary powers being enjoyed by the three brothers of the President and the
primacy given to the 17 UNP MPs who had crossed over earlier. They are also worried about the political fallout of the economic situation in the country in which the common man is burdened with 20 per cent inflation.

There have been only two defections so far, one from each side. But the two way traffic may increase. Media reports say that President
Rajapaksa had offered the Prime Ministership to Ranil Wickremesinghe, the Leader of the Opposition and head of the United National Party
(UNP) in order to avert dissolution of parliament and fresh elections. But Wickremesinghe said that he would rather have a snap poll.

Both sides are using every trick in the book to get cross-overs, according to media reports. Character assassination, inconvenient
disclosures, inducements and pressures of various kinds are being pressed into service.