President Ranil Wickremesinghe, on Monday, presented the 2014 Budget themed, ‘A Prelude to a Bright Future’. It is now under the microscope, and there has been a mixed reaction to it. The President has vehemently denied that it is an election budget, but some of its key proposals are aimed at helping the government gain political mileage as evident from the proposed relief measures such as enhanced cost of living allowances for state employees and pensioners and the offer to transfer the ownership of the state-owned low-income houses to their current occupants. The President has also promised to provide the estate workers with freehold land in 10-perch blocks. How does the government propose to raise funds for the promised relief measures?

It may be possible to give away the state-owned houses and parcels of state land straightaway, provided there are no legal barriers, but enhanced cost of living allowances for the public sector employees and pensioners will cause an exponential increase in the government expenditure. The budget has not proposed specific revenue boosting measures as such, and the government seems to be relying on the VAT increase (from 15% to 18%), and the broadening of tax collection, etc., to finance relief. Economic analysts however are skeptical about the effectiveness of these measures in increasing the state revenue substantially, given the flaws in revenue collection.

The new Central Bank law prevents the government from resorting to excessive money printing, and it will not be possible to borrow from external sources until the completion of the debt restructuring process. The state banks are so strained that the government has had to pump funds into them to ensure their stability, according to the President. So, it will be an uphill task for the government to raise funds for the implementation of its budget proposals.

President Wickremesinghe has said the budget is aimed at helping the country come out of the current economic crisis. What the country had gone through the previous year was ‘economic hell’ and if it was not to revert to such a situation, its economic and political system had to be created anew, he said. “A new social consensus should be established. What we have done in this budget document is to lay the foundation for it.” State Minister of Finance Ranjith Siyambalapitiya, taking part in the budget debate in the parliament on Tuesday, endorsed the President’s claim. But not all SLPP MPs speak with one voice when they comment on the budget. Some of them strike discordant notes.

Will the SLPP, which is at loggerheads with President Wickremesinghe, vote for the budget? This is the question being asked in some quarters following an uncomplimentary comment SLPP MP Namal Rajapaksa has made on the budget. Namal lost no time in expressing doubts about the implementability of the Budget proposals, most of which had been borrowed from the previous budget and it should be possible for them to be implemented on the ground, he told reporters while coming out of the parliamentary chamber after the budget speech on Monday. President Wickremesinghe had presented the budget as the SLPP’s Finance Minister, and therefore it should reflect the party’s policies, and fairytales were of no use, he added. His comment is trending in social media.

Interestingly, Opposition and SJB Leader Sajith Premadasa has also expressed a similar view. He said on Monday that most of the previous year’s budget proposals had remained unimplemented, and a similar fate was likely to befall the 2024 budget as well. He went on to say that it was only the ordinary people who were in the economic hell the President had spoken about, and the government politicians, their families and friends were enjoying luxury lifestyles.

Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s response to the 2024 budget was more nuanced than Namal’s. When he was accosted by journalists at the parliamentary complex immediately after President Wickremesinghe had concluded the budget speech, he said it was too early to comment, and he would express his views after studying the budget fully. However, the fact remains that he did not readily welcome it unlike last time, and this could be considered an indication of strained relations between the President and the SLPP, which has not made public its official position on the budget.

The SLPP is obviously smarting from its failure to have some of its district leaders appointed to the Cabinet. President Wickremesinghe has not given in to its pressure, and no less a person than SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam has expressed his displeasure at the President’s refusal to do so. Some of the former ministers in the SLPP, such Rohitha Abeygunawardena, have even warned that they may be compelled to withdraw support for the President in the parliament unless their interests are looked after. They are of the view that the SLFP members of the government are receiving preferential treatment from the President.

Whatever the SLPP leaders may say about the budget for the consumption of the public, the fact remains that they elevated Wickremesinghe to the presidency and are supporting him in the parliament, and therefore they cannot deny responsibility for the President’s commissions and omissions. The public does not seem to take the SLPP’s criticism of the President seriously. The only way the SLPP MPs could prove that they are actually opposed to the budget is to vote it down in the parliament. But they would commit political hara-kiri if they ever resorted to such an extreme course of action, which would bring down the government, and there is nothing that the SLPP fears more than the prospect of having to face an election at this juncture. An electoral contest is the last thing both the SLPP and the UNP want. Verite Research has said the government’s approval rating has plummeted from 21% to 9% during the past several months. This is an unnerving proposition for the SLPP as well as the UNP, which has not been able to recover lost ground sufficiently although it has secured the executive presidency fortuitously.

President Wickremesinghe does not seem concerned about some SLPP MPs’ criticism of the budget.  Addressing a group of media heads at the Presidential Secretariat on Tuesday, he expressed confidence that the budget would be passed by the parliament, according to the Presidential Media Division. Namal and other SLPP MPs may say uncomplimentary things about the budget but will eventually fall in line for their own sake rather than the President’s.