The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government has proved, much to the disappointment of its rivals, that its parliamentary majority is still intact. It had the second reading of the 2024 budget passed with a majority of 45 votes on Tuesday (21). It mustered 122 votes as opposed to the Opposition’s 77. This is no mean achievement for a government, which is scared of facing popular elections and keeps postponing them. The same result can be expected when the final vote is taken on the budget on Dec., 13.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe, in his capacity as the Minister of Finance, presented the 2024 Budget on Nov. 13. The debate on the second reading of the Appropriation Bill commenced the following day and lasted for seven days.

The total government expenditure has been projected to be Rs. 6,978 billion, an increase of nearly 33% compared to that in 2023.

The budget deficit for the fiscal year 2024 is Rs. 2,851 billion or 9.1% of the GDP. This is higher than the revised 8.5% of GDP in the current year. The original target for 2023 was 7.9%.

The debate on the committee stage or the third reading of the Appropriation Bill commenced on Nov. 22 and it will go on for 19 days until December 13, excluding Sundays.

The vote on the Third Reading of the budget is scheduled to be held at 6.00 p.m. on Dec. 13.

Speculation was rife in political circles in the run-up to the vote on the second reading of the budget that the government would have its work cut out to raise a simple majority in the parliament, given the increasing intensity of the SLPP-UNP government’s internal problems. The SLPP MPs who lost their ministerial posts last year and are eager to get back into the Cabinet sought to bolster their bargaining power by giving the impression that they might not back the budget unless their interests were looked after.

Overcooked rice and over-salted curries

SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam himself expressed his displeasure at President Wickremesinghe’s refusal to accommodate the SLPP’s district leaders in the Cabinet. A couple of weeks ago, former Minister and staunch Rajapaksa loyalist, Rohitha Abeygunawardena, publicly said that he and other like-minded SLPP MPs would have to think twice before voting for the budget to be presented, the implication being that they might vote against it or abstain. But Abeygunawardena voted with the government on Tuesday (21), claiming that one did not divorce one’s wife simply because rice happened to be overcooked or a curry over-salted. That is how he sought to justify his U-turn.

It is highly unlikely that the SLPP will go so far as to shoot down the budget and dig its political grave in the process. It is not ready to face an election. SLPP MP Namal Rajapaksa, however, did not vote for the second reading of the budget last week, but others will not emulate him for obvious reasons. Maybe, he finds its embarrassing to support the budget, having been critical of it, or he is pretending that he is not well-disposed towards either President Ranil Wickremesinghe and the UNP.

The fact that the current SLPP-UNP government has managed to retain a parliamentary majority does not mean it will be able to retain power at a future general election. A government can stay in power by manipulating numbers in the parliament even if its popularity is on the wane.

Majorities and popularity

Falls of government for want of parliamentary majorities are not common in this country. There have been only three such instances. In March 1960, Dudley Senanayake’s UNP government collapsed when it failed to secure the passage of the Throne Speech. Sirima Bandaranaike’s SLFP-led government, which was formed in July 1960, had to opt for a snap general election owing to mass crossovers in 1964.

The Proportional Representation system usually brings about unstable governments, and the SLFP-led People’s Alliance government under Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s leadership could not secure a majority of seats at the 1994 general election, but it completed its full term with the help of some minority parties. Her party, re-elected in 2000, was not that lucky. The UNP brought it down the following year by engineering mass crossovers, and gained control over the parliamentary by winning the 2001 general election.

President Kumaratunga sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government and won the 2004 general election, but her UPFA could not secure a clear majority and had to retain its power with the help of smaller parties. Her successor, Mahinda Rajapaksa, further strengthened the UPFA government with crossovers from the UNP. The UPFA government, re-elected in 2010 with a near two-thirds majority, fell in 2015, when the UNP-led UNF formed the so-called Yahapalana government with the help of a section of the UPFA after winning 106 seats at the general election held in that year. The UNP-led government survived the breakaway of the SLFP in 2018 and remained in power until 2019. The then Opposition led by the SLPP had popular support but could not turn the tables on the UNF government in the parliament. The SLPP scored a stunning victory at the 2020 general election, and the rest is history.

Repetition of history with a difference

What is seen in the parliament at present bears some similarity to the situation during the early stages of the Yahapalana government. The UNP and the forces traditionally opposed to it—the SLFP and its offshoot, the SLPP—have come together to wield power, with some SLPP MPs having broken ranks just like the members of the Joint Opposition, which consisted of dissident MPs of the SLFP-led UPFA, during the Yahapalana government.

The difference between the two situations is that the Rajapaksas, who refused to have anything to do with the UNP are backing UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, having made him the President, and Sajith Premadasa and others who backed the Yahapalana government to the hilt, as members of the UNP, are in the Opposition as the SJB.


What Tuesday’s vote on the second reading of the budget signifies is that the SLPP-UNP combine is capable of retaining control of the parliament until the 2024 Presidential polls expected to be held before all other elections. President Wickremesinghe himself told the parliament on Wednesday that the presidential and parliamentary elections would be held in 2024 and Rs. 10 billion had been allocated for the Election Commission from the 2024 budget. The Provincial Council and Local Government elections could be held in 2025, he said.

Parliamentary majorities however do not necessarily translate into popular support, as was the experience of the Yahapalana government. The current SLPP-UNP administration will be mistaken if it thinks it can win elections by postponing them and/or by meddling with the electoral schedule. The UNP, which held on to power by retaining a parliamentary majority even after the SLFP’s pullout from the Yahapalana government in 2018 could not have any of its candidates returned at the 2020 general election and was left with only a single National List seat. This is the harsh reality that the leaders of the incumbent government should not lose sight of. They have to mend their ways if they are to avert a fate similar to that which befell the Yahapalana partners.