Reduction of Bunge time shocks experts Prime Minister Mizengo Pinda (right) chats with Justice and Constitutional Affairs minister Mathias Chikawe in Parliament in Dodoma yesterday. By Citizen Reporters The announcement that the Budget session of Parliament will last for only five weeks caused an uproar yesterday, with mounting complaints that the decision would deny the MPs enough time to debate the crucial issues in the government's estimate of income and expenditure for the next financial year. Some leading economists, activists and even politicians criticized the move to cut the duration of the session from between eight and 12 weeks to only five weeks this year, saying the time would not be sufficient to deliberate on all the issues. Speaking in separate interviews with The Citizen, in Dar es Salaam, they said the reduction of the Budget session duration was a big mistake. One of the critics, Prof Marjorie Mbilinyi, who is a senior official of the NGO, Tanzania Gender Networking Programme (TGNP), said: "Let us keep in mind the fact that in a representative democracy like ours, Parliament has an important oversight role in approving national budgets as well as monitoring expenditure on behalf of the citizens." But National Assembly Speaker Samuel Sitta said Parliament had been literally forced by the National Electoral Commission (NEC) into reducing the Budget session to a mere five weeks instead of the usual two months or more. Defending the move, which has elicited angry reactions, with civil society activists expressing concern over the "rushing of the Budget", Mr Sitta said that while it would have been the wish of Parliament to run as usual, there was little they could do over the election timetable announced by NEC. For her part, Prof Mbilinyi said five weeks would not be enough time for the MPs to discuss each ministry's budget at length, as well as "consult with different social actors who will be attending the session to present their views". She added: "Hopefully, this year, that kind of advocacy will include more grassroots advocacy and community groups, as well as the private sector." The economist said that while the parliamentary committees had met to discuss each budget during the past two weeks, the sessions had not been widely publicised and not all the MPs had been involved. The Budget session, she added, enabled the public to watch and listen keenly to the debate in the National Assembly, and review the different positions taken by MPs on the key issues raised by the different social groups. While the government has explained that the reason for cutting the session was to allow more time for preparations for the October 31 General election and to reduce expenditure, following national revenue shortfalls, Prof Mbilinyi would not buy the argument. Since the MPs have final oversight over mobilisation and allocations, it would be unfair to deny them enough time to scrutinise the Budget, she said. The Civic United Front (CUF) national chairman, Prof Ibrahim Lipumba, who is a renowned economist, said: "It is obvious that the MPs will not have enough time to digest and thoroughly assess the Budget." He said it was during the session that the MPs could evaluate the performance of the National Strategy for Growth and Reduction of Poverty (NSGRP) 1 or Mkukuta 1, as it is commonly known by its Kiswahili acronym. "It is also in this Budget session that MPs should have adequate time to deliberate on the implementation of Mkukuta 2," said the opposition leader. Quoting a Kiswahili saying; "Funika kombe mwanaharamu apite, literally meaning, casually let matters pass, Prof Lipumba said he was disturbed that the slashing of the session's duration was because of the forthcoming elections. "You can tell that they are not even interested in the Budget session as all they are thinking about now is the General Election," he added. He said he also suspected that the government had prepared an incomplete budget, hence the need to hasten debate. "It is normal with our Budgets that what is presented on paper is not what usually transpires on the ground," he noted. Also speaking to The Citizen, an economist with a Dar es Salaam-based NGO, said there was more to the official version on why only the Bunge session had been reduced to only five weeks than meets the eye. He saw in the decision an attempt to save the colossal resources often spent to pay the hefty expenses of the government during the parliamentary sittings, including allowances for the MPs and government officials, as a result of the recent donor squeeze. "Another possible reason is an attempt to ensure there is no ample time to debate the estimates in a bid to save the government from thorough accounting of every cent budgeted," said the economist, who preferred to remain anonymous over the sensitivity of the matter. He said the MPs would not have enough time to read all the budget books and speeches and this would minimise the number of questions. "It is also an attempt to block motions such as the private candidates' participation in elections, as was decided by the High Court," he said. "With the Court of Appeal giving its verdict in favour of the Rev Christopher Mtikila on this matter, the government would have been obliged to present a Bill to amend sections of the current law in order to allow private candidates to stand in the forthcoming elections." However, a University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM) economist, Dr Benjamin Mutagwaba, said the five weeks would be sufficient time if the MPs would stick to issues while discussing the budgets. "Time management is very important. You can express yourself in one sentence and you will be understood," said Dr Mutagwaba, who heads the General Management Department of the UDSM Business School. "Slashing the time should not be an issue. They could even discuss the Budget in four or three weeks. What is important is that they should always be punctual." He challenged the MPs to get prepared before discussing anything to be able to deal exhaustively with the issues. Trade Union Congress of Tanzania (Tucta) acting secretary general Nicholas Mgaya said: "It is sad that during election year, the government behaves as if something unusual is about to happen. Don't we have planners? Why five weeks? Who is in hurry to win or lose elections. Tanzanians should not be taken for granted by politicians." Answering questions from journalists after chairing the first session of the 20th Bunge meeting in Dodoma yesterday, Speaker Sitta said they had held talks with the government to arrive at the five-week period. "As an independent body, no one would intervene once the NEC announced the dates for nomination of political parties' candidates and the campaign period. We were also surprised at the move but had to adjust so that MPs and their parties fit into the timetable." He said that by setting August 19, as the deadline within which parties should have nominated candidates for civic, parliamentary and presidential candidates, Parliament would have to be dissolved by July 17. Mr Sitta, Prime Minister Mizengo Pinda, members of the parliamentary Steering Committee as well as some government ministers were scheduled for a mid morning meeting yesterday to discuss how to conclude the Budget debate within five weeks. "It is too late now to do anything. The NEC has its own valid reasons for this demand," said the Speaker. The Citizen had asked why he could not consult with the NEC so that the election timetable did not clash with that of the august House. Mr Sitta said he would ensure that the Budget is fully debated. "The use of weekends for official business, including debate, will come in handy," said Mr Sitta. However, he conceded that those questioning the reduction of the debate period had a point. Some critics had pointed out that the shorter period would mean that some ministries would have their budgets debated for only a day. President Jakaya Kikwete will officially dissolve Parliament on July 16, with a keynote address in the House. Political parties will then have four weeks within which to conduct their nominations before a two-month campaign period kicks off on August 20. Tanzanians will then go to the polls on October 31. Finance minister Mustafa Mkulo told The Citizen that he was fully prepared to meet the challenges in the next few days, as MPs begin scrutinising his Sh11 trillion Budget for the 2010/11 financial year. "I am ready and well-prepared for Thursday, but cannot say more for now," said Mr Mkulo.