Typically, in Sri Lanka, even when there is a national calamity, it is politics that seems to dominate the national agenda. In more recent years, when there was imminent Indian military adventurism into Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and territorial integrity (1987), certain leaders of the then Government scuttled a joint statement from Parliament saying it would [...]


Risking it all for an election


Typically, in Sri Lanka, even when there is a national calamity, it is politics that seems to dominate the national agenda.

In more recent years, when there was imminent Indian military adventurism into Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and territorial integrity (1987), certain leaders of the then Government scuttled a joint statement from Parliament saying it would give the Opposition at the time some political leverage. When the tsunami ravaged the country (2004), the then Prime Minister was dragged over the coals for ‘Helping Hambantota’. When 17 Opposition MPs joined a wobbly Government to shore up its Parliamentary strength during a crucial stage of the fight against the LTTE, they were branded opportunists for crossing party lines.

Now comes the whiff of Government plans to press for a general election in the midst of a global and local war against a deadly virus. No country in the world, not even where it all started, can really say it is out of the woods — yet.

The Chairman of the Election Commission (EC) has written twice to the President urging him to seek an opinion from the Supreme Court on whether the election can be postponed beyond June 2 which is the last date by which it must be held in view of the dissolution of Parliament on March 2. The reason for writing was obvious; the EC was exploring the need to put off the election for a date after June 2. The President has dismissed this suggestion probably as ‘unsolicited advice’ and asked the EC to make an election date itself.

While ostensibly asking the EC to decide on the date, the Government is seen as preparing the groundwork for an early election — some saying Saturday, May 23 is already earmarked in their minds.

The constitutional problem is that with Parliament dissolved, there is a requirement to hold the election within three months. The practical problem, however, is whether hundreds of party workers can be let loose to campaign and thousands of public servants, police and service personnel can be called to action risking exposure to a virus that cannot yet be declared defeated. That is without counting the millions who will stand in long queues to vote. The entire exercise is scary.

If there is a move to fast forward the holding of a poll, the Government’s indecent hurry comes into question. In a way, the Government is currently experiencing a dream platform to govern; no Opposition in Parliament, the Courts not sitting due to a curfew, Provincial Councils defunct (which is not a bad thing), a critical Press unable to distribute newspapers, and still, the Government not being accused of the closure of these democratic institutions because of a genuine reason — COVID-19.

Thus unhampered in what they want to do, even the distribution of financial handouts to the poor is in the hands of the ruling party with no monitoring and therefore no censure from the EC or civil society groups. Some of the Police orders being rattled off from time to time from its headquarters are legally questionable even though the people are following them faithfully to the Government’s advantage.

The only drawback for the Government is that it cannot pass legislation and pass money. There is a real constitutional question whether the Government has the legal authority to spend money after April 30 when the last Vote on Account lapses. The emasculated Opposition has raised this issue and urged that Parliament reconvenes to rectify this anomaly.

This again, the Government has brushed aside as inconsequential, arguing it has the powers — and with the courts not sitting to test the constitutionality of it all, it is having a free run. The President is in no mood to reconvene Parliament. It betrays the fact that as far as the Government is concerned, the 2015 Parliament is done and dusted and it is a new 2020 Parliament that is being looked forward to.

The EC has announced that it will meet tomorrow (April 20) to discuss the holding of an election in the current environment. On the other hand, the Government wants to ‘strike while the iron is hot’ which translates to taking advantage of the disarray in the ranks of the Opposition. Such a mindset within the Government is reinforced by the very fact that it insisted on the original deadline for the nomination of candidates despite the outbreak of COVID-19 in the country. Usually Governments get termed dictatorships when elections are postponed. In this case, it’s the reverse; it is being accused of rushing an election.

The Government will maintain that it is the EC that must fix the date of the election. The onus is clearly on the EC but writing two letters to the President asking him to clarify matters betrays an over-dependence on its part on the Government to what is essentially a decision that is its and its alone to make.

The Government’s decision to reopen schools on May 11 and universities even earlier has already run into a storm of protests from teachers. The World Health Organisation (WHO) — the UN agency which came under fire for delaying in alerting the world about COVID-19 — has now warned governments worldwide about any premature relaxation of the tough lockdown measures that the peoples of the world are enduring to arrest the virus. “The way down could be as dangerous as the way up”, it has said referring to countries that see a ‘pale ray of sunshine’ in the numbers of COVID-19 victims declining.

The disaster that struck the people of Iran by when an election was held amidst the pandemic must not be ignored. South Korea has just held an election but under tight testing procedures for voters and officials in protective clothing which Sri Lanka is not geared for. There are disturbing reports, too, of those who recovered from the virus in South Korea getting relapses.

When the first patient in Sri Lanka who tested positive for the virus was cleared and the Minister and the nurses kissed her in a glare of publicity, the Government did not bargain for what was to come. At the end of this week there are more than 240 known COVID-19 patients in the country.

Likewise, second waves of the virus are being talked about globally and fresh explosions of cases cannot be ruled out. One must remember Sri Lanka’s testing record for patients is wanting. However acclaimed the country’s handling has been, notwithstanding some early shortcomings, the success must not be reversed due to political agendas.

The priority is to get rid of the virus and reopen the economy. The country cannot afford an outbreak of the virus that looks like being avoided, and then having to spend another Rs. 6 billion on having yet another election if the newly elected MPs are to come to Parliament infected with the virus.


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