Budget 2021 in the Balance

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After 12 days of debate since its tabling, Budget 2021 still hangs in the balance with neither side of the political divide appearing to budge.

The Yang di-Pertuan Agong may have urged MPs to unite for the sake of the people and country suffering from the Covid-19 pandemic, but many said lawmakers should vote according to conscience and principles.

As such, the opposition has made demands that include reforms, such as cutting funds for propaganda unit the Special Affairs Department (Jasa) and inclusion of people-centric moves like extending the blanket moratorium on loans until next year.

“There has been no commitment from Perikatan Nasional to amend the budget according to our suggestions,” Tanjung Malim MP Chang Lih Kang told The Malaysian Insight ahead of scheduled voting for the supply bill tomorrow.

“As such, there is very little incentive for Pakatan Harapan to support the budget,” said the PKR vice-president.

Besides funding for Jasa and the loan moratorium extension, PH also wants the easing of Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF) withdrawals to help those hit by the economic fallout from the pandemic.

The opposition also asked for equal constituency funds for all MPs, regardless of party affiliation.

But the government appears to stand firm despite meeting with opposition MPs on the budget on November 1.

Umno’s stand

Then there is Umno, which although is part of the PN government, is hankering for a snap general election.

Umno has stated conditional support for Budget 2021, which analysts see as a way of applying political pressure on Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin.

“The chances of Budget 2021 failing are high,” said Universiti Teknologi Malaysia’s Dr Mazlan Ali.

“The opposition aside, Perikatan has also not met Umno’s demands,” said the political science lecturer.

More than 80 MPs have debated the budget, with senior Umno MPs – Najib Razak (Pekan), Ahmad Zahid Hamidi (Bagan Datoh), Ahmad Maslan (Pontian) and Nazri Aziz (Padang Rengas) – indicating that they may not back the budget.

Former prime minister Najib, who is now the Barisan Nasional backbenchers’ club chief, said Umno’s support hinges on extending the loan moratorium and EPF withdrawal in one lump sum, instead of staggered amounts.

“Perikatan doesn’t want to appear weak by agreeing to BN and PH’s demands, but Umno is also using this opportunity to flex its muscles over Muhyiddin.

“It’s a very dicey situation still as the fallout from the budget failing in Parliament could be quite bad,” said Mazlan.

With Covid-19 raging in the country, it is likely the Agong won’t dissolve Parliament now. – The Malaysian Insight pic by Irwan Majid, November 25, 2020.

Dewan Rakyat Deputy Speaker Azalina Othman Said voiced some of the concerns in her blog and suggested that the only way out is to call for elections.

The Pengerang MP also posed several key questions if PN fails to pass its first budget.

“Will the PM resign if the Supply Bill does not pass? Or will the PM claim that a defeat on the Supply Bill does not count as confidence and not resign?

“Although, a loss of supply is typically interpreted as indicating a loss of confidence in the government.”

Adding on to Azalina’s points, Mazlan said: “Even if Muhyiddin resigns, who would be the next PM?

“Would the king agree to dissolve Parliament now in the midst of Covid-19? Or would a new PM be selected among the other 219 MPs?

“Because of these uncertainties, I don’t see Umno rejecting the budget.

“While salaries and wages will still be paid (even if the budget fails), procurement will definitely be affected,” said Mazlan.

Last-minute deals

Much hinges on these last two days before the vote, said Universiti Malaya’s Prof Dr Awang Azman Awang Pawi.

“Just because there are some grouses with the budget, it doesn’t mean it will be rejected as a whole.

“As long as the door for negotiations is still open, there is still time,” said the Malay Studies lecturer.

But Muhyiddin, said Awang Azman, should resign if the budget vote fails.

“The king can still appoint another PM as the next general election is only due in 2023.”

Similar to Umno, Chang said PH’s position on the budget is not final yet.

“We will meet before the vote to decide our final stand.”

Umno met on Monday night to discuss its stand on Budget 2021, but did not disclose a decision.

The budget vote at policy stage (second reading) is expected to take place tomorrow unless it’s pushed further to allow all the ministers to complete their winding-up speeches.

As of today, only eight out of 27 ministers have completed their budget speeches.

PN currently has 112 MPs supporting it after the death of Gerik MP Hasbullah Osman, while the opposition comprises 91 from PH, Warisan-Upko (9), independents (6) and Parti Sarawak Bersatu (2). – TMI