Why do opposition MPs always vote ‘NO’ to the government budget?

Pius Msekwa

THE quoted words in the heading for today’s article are taken from a front page news item, published in the DAILY NEWS of Wednesday, June 21st, 2017.

That news item gives details of the debate which took place in our Parliament the previous day, and reads, in part, as follows: “Members of Parliament (MPs) overwhelmingly endorsed the 2017/18 national budget here last evening, with repeated calls from CCM legislators urging the Government to deny development funds to those constituencies whose representatives had rejected it by their ‘No’ votes.

Out of the 355 votes cast, 260 votes said ‘Yes’, while 95 votes said ‘No’; with all the Opposition legislators voting ‘No’, except only two CUF members (whose names were shown), who voted ‘Yes’.

The said news item continued as follows: “One CCM member, Joseph Kasheku, challenged that ‘if you have refused the budget, it literally means that your people have no problems, and you therefore do not need development funds’ Minister Jenister Mhagama queried the logic behind those Opposition MPs who had rejected the budget, to subsequently subject the Government to questions about the lack of development in their constituencies.

Several other CCM MPs expressed concern about the Government undertaking development projects in areas whose MPs had rejected the budget”. Our readers should not be surprised.

It is indeed strange, surprising, and rather difficult to understand, why the Opposition camp in our Parliament has always opposed the Government budget, considering the fact that, as pointed out by their CCM colleagues, it is the Government budget which pays for the development projects and other social services provided in their respective constituents.

Similarly, it is the Government budget which also pays their salaries and allowances as Members of Parliament. What, then, is the logic for rejecting it ? In this article, we will endeavour to explain that the action itself of attempting to reject the Government budget is not at all surprising.

This is because the Opposition camp has consistently and persistently been making similar attempts every year, starting with the 1996/97 budget. For that reason, we have now become used to it.

What in fact is truly surprising, is their reason for doing so. In other words, what could be the logic for their action in attempting to reject the Government budget? Hence, our readers should not be unduly perturbed by what happened this year.

Because of its repeated usage over so many years, it has now become part of our multi-party parliamentary culture. In the light of that, the principal message of this article, is firstly to inform our readers that the action taken by the Opposition MPs in attempting to reject the Government budge, should not come as a surprise to them; and secondly, to explain further that such happenings are, in fact, completely harmless in the case of all normal Parliaments, that is to say, Parliaments in which the ruling party has a comfortable majority (as is currently the case in Tanzania’s Parliament).

They are harmless because the worst case scenario would be that if the Opposition camp could succeed in rejecting the Government budget through their ‘ ‘No’ votes; then, in compliance with the provisions of article 90(2)(b) of the Constitution of the United republic of Tanzania, the President would be forced to dissolve Parliament and call for new general elections.

But, fortunately, in spite of the Opposition camps persistent attempts, that has not happened , for the reason only that the ruling party (CCM) has a comfortable majority of the members therein who, in compliance with the firmly established parliamentary conventions, must vote in support of the Government budget.

However, as we shall see below, the situation is completely different in what are known as ‘hung Parliaments’. My own encounter with such Opposition actions This practice of the Opposition camp attempting to reject the Government budget actually started with the 1996/97 budget, at a time when I was occupying the Speaker’s Chair.

It occurred at the moment of voting in order to adopt the Government budget for that financial year , which was the first budget to be presented to the newly elected multiparty Parliament.

After the usual general debate on that budget had been concluded, the time came for the vote to be taken on the traditional motion, “ that the Government budget for the Financial year 1996/97 be now approved”.

Because this was the very first time that the new Parliament was voting on such a motion, the Speaker took some time to explain the procedure to be used, by explaining that voting had to be done by roll-call, whereby all the members’ names would be called, one after the other in alphabetical order, starting with the Ministers; and that each member would cast his vote by saying either “Yes’ or ‘No’, or ‘abstain’, as the case may be.

The Speaker explained further that this roll-call procedure was introduced in order to satisfy the requirements of article 94(1) and (2); which makes the following provisions:

(i) “The quorum at every sitting of the House shall be half of all the members of Parliament.

(ii) Except where it is provided otherwise in this Constitution, every question proposed for decision by the National Assembly shall be determined by a majority of the votes of the members of Parliament present and voting”.

But Immediately after that clarification , a member from the Opposition camp quickly rose to object to the Speaker’s statement, claiming that the House should follow the normal procedure of a ‘voice vote’ being taken.

The Speaker rose again to explain that the roll-call procedure was necessary in order to establish, beyond reasonable doubt, that

(a) there was a quorum in the House at the time of voting; and

(b) that the said motion was passed by a majority of the members actually present in the House and voting; as required by article 94(1) and (2) of the Constitution. He therefore made his ruling that ‘voting shall be by rollcall of the members present in the House’. Whereupon all members of the Opposition camp walked out of the House in protest, and a demonstration of their rejection of the Government budget.

However, since the remaining members of the ruling party ( all of whom stayed in the House), were more than enough to constitute a quorum, the voting exercise continued as usual, and the said budget was adopted.

It was later revealed that in refusing the roll-call procedure , they had secretly hoped that some members of the ruling party would have joined the Opposition camp by voting ‘No’ in a voice vote, in which they could not be identified!

But the matter did not end there, since the Opposition camp has continued to vote ‘No’ to every Government budget which was presented to Parliament in all the succeeding years, to date.

The scenario is different in a ‘hung Parliament’. However, the scenario is completely different in what are known as “hung Parliaments”; that is to say, Parliaments in which no political party has a majority of members, like in the current British Parliament.

The concept of a ‘hung Parliament’ probably requires further elaboration. A ‘hung Parliament’ is usually associated with certain complex decision-making problems; which include the initial difficulty of forming a Government.

For example, after the British snap elections which were held last month, British Prime Minister Theresa May had to engage in a series of difficult talks with leaders of a small minority party, in order to enable her to form a functioning new coalition Government.

Coalition Governments are indeed a normal feature in a number of Parliaments around the world; but they are not always easy to form. This difficulty is illustrated by India’s experience, after their 1996 general elections failed to produce a political party with the requisite majority which would enable it to form the Government of India. It thus became necessary to form a coalition of willing parties for that purpose.

Accordingly, negotiations were held between certain specified political parties, but they still failed to produce a coalition which had the required majority. In desperation, they attempted to form what is known as a “minority Government”, i.e., a Government which does not command a majority of members in Parliament.

But a minority Government cannot possibly function properly in the British based parliamentary system of governance. What eventually happened is that the said minority Government lasted for only 13 days, for it had no other choice but to resign, before the newly elected Parliament had assembled for the transaction of business.

This happened because the majority in that Parliament had threatened to throw this minority Government out of office through a ‘ no confidence’ motion, during Parliament’s first business meeting.

A minority Government cannot function properly in this system. A political pundit in India humorously described this failure to form a viable coalition in the following words: “It was like a cemetery.

Those who were inside could not come out, and those who were outside did not want to get in ! There are many other examples around the Commonwealth, which help to illustrate the difficulties created by ‘hung Parliaments’.

A gentle reminder to our voters. Hence, in view of the complex problems which are normally associated with such ‘hung Parliaments’, it may be helpful to our voters, to be reminded about the absolute necessity for them to “vote wisely” at the time of general elections, in order to achieve the desired objective of producing a Parliament which will be able to conduct smooth and conflict-free operations.

Such reminder is helpful because, in the past general elections, some of those who participated purportedly in providing voter education, were in fact misleading the voters, by telling them to “vote for the candidate of your choice”.

This is misleading because in multiparty elections, the main purpose of a general election is to enable the voters to select a political party which will govern the country for the next five years.

In other words, voters are expected to make a choice between the competing political parties, and certainly not between individual candidates.. Hence, “vote for the political party with the best policies” should be the guiding slogan in multi-party election. Thus, it makes much better sense to urge the voters to vote for the political party of their choice, and not just for the candidate of their choice; as this may result in a ‘hung parliament’, with all its complex decision-making problems!

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