By Vishvanath

The Opposition’s anti-government campaign in the parliament has resonated with the irate public, but it has failed to yield the intended results. The government has retained its hold on the legislature, and the Opposition has failed to match its rhetoric with action.

The government is far from popular so much so that it fears elections, but it remains strong in the parliament. It was widely thought last year that following the Aragalaya uprising, which led to unprecedented political changes, a situation similar to that in 2001 would take place. In that year, the SLFP-led PA administration suffered mass crossovers and collapsed, under Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s presidency, resulting in an early general election, which the UNP-led UNF won. Last year, the SLPP administration, too, faced a breakaway with about 30 of its MPs voting with their feet. But it has succeeded in engineering some defections from the Opposition and retaining a comfortable majority in the House. This is no mean achievement for an unpopular government, which keeps postponing elections, unable to face them.                          

The SLPP-UNP administration cleared another hurdle on Monday (11). It secured the passage of the VAT (Amendment) Bill with a majority of 45 votes. There were 100 votes for the Bill and 55 votes against it. A notable absentee in the House during yesterday’s crucial vote in the parliament was SLPP MP Namal Rajapaksa, who also refused to vote for the second reading of the 2024 Budget.

On Sunday, the debate on the VAT (Amendment) Bill had to be postponed because the parliamentary session had to be adjourned until Monday (11) as there was no quorum in the House. Only a few SLPP MPs were present in the parliament and the SJB staged a walkout, rendering the sitting inquorate, and compelling the Chair to adjourn it.

The adjournment of Sunday’s parliamentary session sparked a rumor that the SLPP parliamentary group was divided on the VAT increases, and most of its members would not attend Monday’s sitting as well. But the government managed to have the vital Bill passed. The question however is why there was a sharp drop in the number of votes it usually musters for other Bills and motions—about 122 on average.  

The newly-passed VAT bill to be signed into law shortly has removed 97 items from the list of goods and services previously exempted from VAT. Only about 40 goods and services have been exempted from VAT. The government expects to earn as much as Rs. 378 billion extra from the increase in VAT from 15% to 18% and the abolition of VAT exemptions, according to State Minister of Finance Ranjith Siyambalapitiya. It can now have the second tranche of the IMF loan released, and realize the external debt restructuring goals. Overall, the economy will gain from the drastic measure the government has resorted to boost state revenue to the level prescribed by the IMF, but its political fallout will be enormous.

The government has retained VAT exemptions for some essential commodities and services, but the new VAT scheme will lead to an increase in inflation much to the consternation of the people who are already reeling from an extremely high cost of living.

The Opposition, especially the SJB, seems to have limited its anti-government campaign to the parliament. The worst time for a country is said to be the best time for the political Opposition, which gets an opportunity to tap public anger to make a comeback. The SJB used to take to the streets, but it has not done so recently. Only the JVP holds an occasional street protest to prevent the morale of its cadres from sagging.

The Yahapalana government (2015-2019) also managed to retain control over the parliament despite losing popularity, but the Opposition at that time remained very active and carried out frontal attacks against both the UNP and the SLFP thanks to the leadership of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The SLPP, formed in 2016, turned the tables on the Yahapalana government immediately afterwards and started winning elections in 2018 although the economy was not in crisis. Today, the country is facing the worst ever economic crisis and the people are undergoing untold hardships as never before, but the Opposition has not been able to drum up enough popular support to put the government on the defensive.

The current administration’s strategy seems to be doing everything possible as fast as possible in a bid to achieve some tangible results on the economic front and then grant relief to the people so that public anger will have abated considerably by the time the next election is held. The economy is expected to begin expanding early next year if everything goes as planned with the IMF bailout being on track. If the government can achieve this uphill task, then the Opposition will find it difficult to offer an alternative economic programme to win over the public.

The next election is very likely to be fought on the economic front unlike in the past, as economics has for once taken precedence over politics in this country. It is doubtful whether the people will forgive the present-day leaders for causing so much suffering to them, but the Opposition may have its work cut out to have the turbo boost it expects for its election campaign from the economic crisis and the resultant public anger, which is rocket fuel for protests.

As it is said in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, there is a tide in the affairs of men, which should be taken at the floods for success to be achieved. The Opposition does not seem to be doing enough on the political front to do so and improve its electoral performance while unsettling the government. The JVP has realized the need to take the battle against the government out of the parliament and mobilize popular support, but the SJB is not so active and this has given the impression that the JVP has overtaken all other Opposition parties and is likely to outperform them at future elections. But it is too early to make any such predictions.   Now that the government has demonstrated once again that it is capable of retaining its hold on the parliament and securing the passage of Bill, etc., the Opposition will have to change its strategy if it is to turn the tables on the SLPP-UNP coalition.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here