PM calls meeting of all former MPs, but several opposition parties unlikely to attend Uncomfortable Polls Chief explains commission’s view on date of elections; June 20 date may be postponed A petition by Sajith faction before Supreme Court  challenging elections   The two-storied Elections Secretariat at Sarana Mawatha in Rajagiriya appeared deserted except for a [...]


Amid Covid-19, divisions over parliamentary polls


  • PM calls meeting of all former MPs, but several opposition parties unlikely to attend
  • Uncomfortable Polls Chief explains commission’s view on date of elections; June 20 date may be postponed
  • A petition by Sajith faction before Supreme Court  challenging elections


The two-storied Elections Secretariat at Sarana Mawatha in Rajagiriya appeared deserted except for a few officials and uniformed policemen with pistols in their holsters pacing around last Wednesday.

Election Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya, wearing a facemask arrived in his official Prado Land cruiser. A police officer entered when the lift doors opened. He escorted him to his spacious first floor office together with colleague Anthony David and me.

Even if the mask covered his face, his discomfort and even anger over what he calls ‘allegations against the Commission’ were clearly showing. He sat at an oval wooden table and exclaimed “we cannot fight in public.” The facemask crumpled in different patterns as he spoke. He moved left and right in a swivel chair to say loudly (during a tape-recorded interview), “We are not answering anything on internal matters of the Commission.” There were references in these columns too last week about fissures among members of the Commission. “What we can say will be told without hurting the feelings of anybody,” he declared. He was seated in front of what is one of the largest maps of Sri Lanka rolled and mounted on the wall. An “L” shaped roller handle helped zero into locations as small as a little village. Deshapriya said it was the largest map of Sri Lanka.

It is now public knowledge that Chairman Deshapriya and his commission member Ratnajeevan Hoole are at loggerheads. He said the third member, Nalin Abeysekera, had told him that always answering allegations was not good. “What would the people think,” he asked. Onetime good friends, the two have been holding divergent views on the impending parliamentary election and matters related to it. That has pitched them on the opposite sides in a public boxing ring to spar with words.

Thus, for a man who has conducted many an election remarkably well with no accusations of partiality, dealing with the impending parliamentary polls has turned out to be an unpleasant if not arduous task. After nominations on March 18, Deshapriya and his two EC members fixed the polls originally for April 25. Through a Gazette notification on March 21, they postponed it. They pledged to name a “day coming after fourteen days from the 30th day of April 2020.” Later, through a Gazette notification on April 20, they fixed the date as June 20. Discussions of these matters within the Commission have not been always smooth.

Though arrangements for polls on this date have got under way, Chairman Deshapriya sounded a strong note of caution – that the election laws empower him to put off polls on this date too if the situation demands. Highly placed government sources I spoke with not only concurred with this view but predicted “that could very much be a possibility.” Added to that is a September deadline. The terms of office the three-member Commission comes to an end in November. In the light of this, the last period they could hold elections is September. “We are formulating a manual on how to conduct parliamentary elections with or without coronavirus,” he revealed. He gave a detailed background on how the saga involving dates played out. They appear in later paragraphs.

It is not only to EC Chariman Deshapriya that tasks have been unpleasant and arduous. It is much more in the case of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. He had made ambitious plans to return Sri Lanka to normalcy beginning Wednesday, April 22. But a spike in Covid-19 cases prompted a continuation of the round the clock curfew in the districts of Colombo, Kalutara, Gampaha and Puttalam. Both state and private sector establishments were to open. Instead, the curfew was extended by a week. Once again, on Friday the round-the-clock curfew was extended further till May 11 despite plans earlier to relax it from Monday (tomorrow). An unseen virus is putting paid to all efforts.

It was the result of an unexpected spike again in Covid-19 cases. Much to his embarrassment the vast majority were sailors from the Sri Lanka Navy, the result of contact as well as taking home leave. No doubt, it poses questions on the efficacy of the top command and control structure in one of the country’s foremost military establishments. Somebody failed badly. Official statistics on Friday placed the number of sailors confirmed affected by the virus at 254 from a total of 690 victims. That is more than one third of those afflicted so far. From this number 173 were from the Navy camp at Welisara and 85 from other areas.

The government appears to have been forced to change plans after making them public so any further spread of the virus could be contained. It has no choice though it may affect their credibility. Lives matter most. The Presidential Secretariat said on Friday that resumption of civilian life and private sector activities would now begin from May 11. This will be under a curfew. A statement said, ”In order to ensure return to normalcy in civilian life and to revive the economy including continuous provision of essential services in these districts, both public and private sector entities should resume their work from Monday, 11th May. Heads of institutes are advised to make necessary arrangements taking into consideration of the required number of employees to run their organisations. Head of each entity should ensure strict adherence to the guidelines issued by the Director General of Health Services and other health authorities to control the spread of the COVID-19 virus while carrying out their operations.”

As a measure to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the statement said, “The public must refrain from unnecessarily coming to roads and gathering at various places.” Civilians except those who are essentially required to report to work have been requested to remain in their homes, the statement added and pointed out that “curfew passes are valid only if the driver and passengers wear facemasks.” Just this week, several companies that applied for PPE (Personal Protection Equipment) manufacture in Sri Lanka won approval. They have been told to begin work immediately.

In the light of the dip in the situation that began since April 22, a government source said, “we feel the new approach is manageable from May 11 and we are prepared for it.” Their antagonists, however, question the practicality of it and voice concerns of a possible spread of the virus. These developments come as Parliament approved financial allocations for government expenditure ended at midnight Thursday (April 30).

Brigadier Suresh Sallay, Director of the State Intelligence Service (SIS), gave a 90-minute detailed briefing to ministers at their weekly ministerial meeting last Wednesday. The SIS has played a key role in tracing the movement of those who had contracted Covid-19. Hence, they have a detailed picture of how the deadly virus spread in some areas. The senior intelligence official gave an account about how the SIS coped with different clusters when a person was identified as a positive coronavirus case. They went from the first contact, second contact and so on. The sum effect of his lengthy briefing, a ministerial source said, is that “we have turned the corner” as a result of the steps taken but have to carefully de-escalate the situation.

With a new move towards normalcy, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has invited 224 former MPs for a meeting tomorrow morning at Temple Trees.  Even former MPs of the Previous Parliament have been invited. The reason behind Premier Rajapaksa meeting the former government and opposition MPs is particularly to seek their views on measures adopted to deal with the spread of Covid-19. This is particularly in the wake of accusations by sections in the opposition that their views were not being sought by the government. Premier Rajapaksa is also expected to explain the steps being taken by the government to gradually restore normalcy. Such a move, he is of the view, would pave the way for the conduct of parliamentary elections. He is steadfast in his view that there will be no re-summoning of Parliament. However, opposition parties argue that their demand was for re-summoning Parliament and also ensure public expenditure is approved by it.

Opposition politicians including SJB General Secretary Ranjith Madduma Bandara, UNP General Secretary Akila Viraj Kariyawasam and its national organiser Ravi Karunanayake are seen outside the Election Secretariat at Rajagiriya yesterday. Pic by Sameera Weerasekara

Government sources believe Premier Rajapaksa’s call for a meeting will obviate opposition criticism that he was not consulting them. So far, only a United National Party (UNP) delegation led by its leader Ranil Wickremesinghe has confirmed attendance. He is expected to be accompanied by Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, Ravi Karunanayake and Navin Dissanayake, among others.

The Sajith Premadasa-led Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) is not expected to take part. Its leaders were meeting to formally decide on the matter. Its General Secretary Ranjit Madduma Bandara told the Sunday Times, “We are disappointed with the President’s response.” Madduma Bandara issued a two-page statement yesterday explaining why they were not attending. It appears elsewhere in this newspaper. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which was also a signatory to Premadasa’s letter to the President, will attend tomorrow’s meeting, senior member M.A. Sumanthiran told the Sunday Times. He feels it is an opportunity to explain the viewpoints of the opposition parties and also hear Premier Rajapaksa’s responses.

Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake told the Sunday Times, “If there are joint mechanisms to fight the coronavirus, we will join them. We will also take part in party leaders’ meetings in this regard. However, we will not attend Monday’s meeting. It is our view that it is not a legal event and is not useful.”

Tomorrow’s meeting comes in the backdrop of a request made by a group of opposition party leaders urging President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to re-summon Parliament. The request was forwarded by Premadasa in his capacity as former Leader of the Opposition. The President and the whole country, they said, “can count on our utmost sincerity and responsible co-operation” without any strings.

The signatories are Ranil Wickremesinghe (UNP), Sajith Premadasa (SJB), Patali Champika Ranawaka (Jathika Hela Urumaya), Rajavarothayam Sampanthan (Tamil National Alliance), Rishad Bathiuddin (All Ceylon Makkal Congress), Rauff Hakeem (Sri Lanka Muslim Congress) and Mano Ganesan (Tamil Progressive Alliance). The prime mover in the exercise was TNA’s M.A. Sumanthiran. In a Joint Statement, the parties that represent majority members in Parliament, made ten different points.

The political situation is specifically in a state of uncertainty due to the dissolution of Parliament and the absence of conditions conducive to hold parliamentary elections as stipulated, said one point. It added, “There is also no assurance that the election could now be held on June 20. The new date was determined by the Election Commission only a few days ago. The Commission has already indicated that this will have to be reviewed again against the evolving public health situation in the country.”

Re-summoning the dissolved Parliament, they said, would greatly contribute to resolving “a number of urgent governance issues that have emerged amidst the crisis.” They have added that this includes “getting appropriate and new legislation passed in order to meet the public health crisis and obtaining parliamentary sanction to the utilisation of moneys from the Consolidated Fund are some such important and urgent functions of Parliament.”

On Thursday, Presidential Secretary P.B. Jayasundera responded with a letter to Premadasa. He said “….. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has instructed me to inform you that going by the statement, it is evident that the parties who have signed the statement do not believe in holding elections and instead engage in a narrow political agenda at a crucial time when the government is striving to safeguard public health, social security and welfare. It is observed that these parties do not appreciate the immense sacrifices by the government bodies such as Health and other Public Services, Tri-Forces, Police, and the private sector to contain and eliminate the Covid-19 pandemic.

“…….. the President further emphasised that a Parliament dissolves itself at the end of its five-year term or is dissolved by the President. Accordingly, the previous Parliament was dissolved on 02.03. 2020 by His Excellency the President. I have been instructed to convey you that the validity of the above dissolution notice is confirmed by the fact that all the parties who have signed the joint statement have accepted it.

“I have been further advised to inform you that the dissolved Parliament cannot be reconvened and the election was scheduled to be held on 25.04.2020 according to the dissolution notification issued via the Extraordinary Gazette on the 2nd of March 2020 and subsequently it was postponed to 20.06.2020 by the Election Commission. In addition, His Excellency the President has instructed me to notify you that the requirement to abide by Article 70(7) of the Constitution does not arise.”

In a separate letter to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, former Finance Minister, Mangala Samaraweera also urged to summon Parliament. He argued that it is “imperative to have the essential expenditure, including the payment of salaries to the public service after 30th April 2020 approved legally and constitutionally so that Sri Lanka acts responsibly, respecting the Constitution in relation to public finances.”

Samaraweera also said that the President, Prime Minister, Cabinet of Ministers and the Members of Parliament, as well as all public officials, including the Secretary to the Treasury, have pledged to uphold and defend the Constitution of the Republic. Any person who acts in contravention of the provisions on conviction by the Court of Appeal, he said, shall be subject to:

“(a) Civic disability for such period not exceeding seven years and

“(b) Forfeit his movable and immovable property other than such property as is determined as being necessary for the sustenance of such person and his family.

“Failure to do so, especially at a time of a pandemic is bound to have serious repercussions for the short and long-term economic well-being of our people especially in light of international obligations and the nature of the interconnected global financial and economic system,” he pointed out.

The assertions drew an angry response from Minister Wimal Weerawansa. He told the Sunday Times, “In the utilisation of monies from the Consolidated Fund, the President has obtained expert legal opinion. There is no question about it. He is constitutionally empowered to seek approval from the new Parliament when it convenes. Look at those who are making an issue of it now. When we wanted their support to pass moneys, they backed out. Suddenly, they have woken up and say they want to do it for the country’s sake. This is hypocrisy.”

A government source said that in terms Article 148 of the constitution, “Parliament shall have full control over public finance. No tax, rate or any other levy shall be imposed by any local authority or other any public authority, except by or under the authority of a law passed by Parliament or of any existing law.” However, the source said that in terms of article 151(3) the Minister of Finance with the consent of the President may authorise an advance from the Contingencies Fund.

Here is the provision: “151 (1) Notwithstanding any of the provisions of Article 149, Parliament may by law create a Contingencies Fund for the purpose of providing for urgent and unforeseen expenditure.

(2)  The Minister in charge of the subject of Finance, if satisfied –

(a)  that there is need for any such expenditure, and

(b)  that no provision for such expenditure exists,

(3)  As soon as possible after every such advance, a Supplementary Estimate shall be presented to Parliament for the purpose of replacing the amount so advanced.”

Presidential Secretary Jayasundera also responded to Samaraweera with a two-page statement on Thursday. Among other matters the reply noted that “…. the President has directed me to bring to your attention the regrettable fact that the proposal to settle arrears of Rs. 182 billion and Rs. 211 billion foreign loaned project funds incurred when you were the Finance Minister, was rejected when presented in Parliament. This was rejected despite been presented by the Prime Minister with the approval of the new Cabinet of Ministers of the Government appointed after the Presidential Elections and that of the Attorney General. Through this action, the President was prevented from fulfilling the mandate given to him by much of the people. This is in complete contrast to the support extended by the then Opposition to the minority government of 2015.”

It added: “Above all, His Excellency the President has directed me to communicate to you that he is perplexed as to the possible reasons for an educated, intelligent and an ardent believer in neo-liberal socio-economic model and a senior politician who had managed the economy such as yourself to desist from allowing people to exercise their democratic right through the participation in elections.” Samaraweera’s response came in a tweet. He said “Secy PB responds to my letter to HE in “Kohede Yanne – Malle Pol” style avoiding the important constitutional questions raised.”

Notwithstanding the prospects of a further postponement of the parliamentary elections from June 20, the Election Commission is going ahead with all preparations. Chairman Deshapriya said that tomorrow (Monday) he hoped to gazette the list of candidates who have handed in their nominations. He will also allot numbers for them, so voters could cast preferential votes. Technically that would signal the start of the election campaign. State sector officers entitled to cast postal votes have been called upon to send in their applications.   “The sole authority now is the Director General of Health Services and his personnel. Without their green light, we cannot go ahead,” he declared. Even if they give the go ahead, if we see a problem, I do not know what to do then, he lamented.

The elections chief declined comment on whether the Parliament should be re-summoned. “I won’t answer that,” he said.  “Sovereignty belongs to the people. It is an inalienable right. Governance is divided into three – legislature, executive and judiciary. The laws should be enacted by the representatives of the people,” he added. My slogan is “Defeat Covid-19 – Victory for Democracy.”

In March Deshapriya said, when Secretary to the President, P.B. Jayasundera asked what in the EC’s view would be the best date for parliamentary elections. We suggested that an opinion be sought from the Attorney General. Later, Parliament was dissolved on March 2. In terms of the law, the polls should be held within a minimum of 35 days and maximum of 49 days. “From that date, we looked at the first Saturday possible and that was April 25. The next Saturday May 2 was not conducive since it was the day following May Day,” said Deshapriya. Deputy Commissioners were in favor of this date. Assistant Commissioners, however, wished it would be held on May 4 since it would be easy for them. Yet there was Vesak on May 7 and 8. Then for Muslims, the fasting month of Ramazan was beginning.

The detection of coronavirus cases on March 11 and 12 caused a setback. The government declared a public holiday on March 16 and imposed curfew from March 20. For the polls March 16 was the deadline for applications for postal votes. “In terms of the law, we could not postpone this. Yet, we extended it till April 17,” Deshapriya said. There were seven holidays in April, and we decided to complete the postal vote process on April 23.

During that period, Deshapriya said, twenty Deputy Commissioners came to his office in Colombo. “They had a discussion with Professor Hoole and me. They asked whether the Commission could reverse the process of elections. I said that was not within our powers. On other issues, I agreed to consult the third member, Nalin Abeysekera and respond,” he pointed out. By that time, he said, it became clear even if there is no coronavirus pandemic, we could not hold elections after April 19. This is because preparations could not be completed for postal votes. Moreover, applications for postal votes had not arrived.  (Note: They were stuck in the Postal Department which was not functioning). We were now facing a practical problem, he pointed out.

Deshapriya added, “On March 19 we held a news conference. We announced that we will postpone the April 25 elections. In doing so, we were later asked why a new date was not mentioned in the gazette of March 21. If there was a date, it was to be May 27, 28 or 30. These dates considered the President’s proclamation that the new Parliament would meet on May 14. The law requires that after dissolution of Parliament and elections are held, the new Parliament should meet within three months. Thus, June 2 became the deadline for this since Parliament was dissolved on March 2.  When we could not meet this deadline, on April 1, I wrote to Presidential Secretary.”

The Election Commission had also written to the Attorney General to seek his advice. He had replied that it was the EC’s duty to “fix the date for the elections,” Deshapriya said. At the Commission meeting, he said he “explained the situation without hurting anybody.” That remark seemed ironic for the EC Chairman. Obviously, he entertained fears of hurting somebody at the Commission meeting that he had to choose his words.

Deshaprya went on to say, “When we cancelled the April 25 date, we did not mention another. Therefore, some said the EC had made a mistake. Supposing we had gazetted May 27, we could not have conducted the elections. There is a practical difficulty. This is the first time we are facing the coronavirus. When our discussion was under way earlier, one of the Deputy Commissioners said there was information that the curfew in Colombo was being relaxed not on April 22 but it was extended to April 27. May 1 was a holiday whilst May 2 and 3 were the weekend. Therefore, we decided to count the dates from May 4. Adding 49 days, it came to June 21 which was a Sunday. Hence, we decided on June 20. That is how we arrived at the date. We had differences but all three agreed and signed the gazette notification.”

This week makes clear that lines between the government and the opposition over the upcoming parliamentary elections, are drawn. The government has once again categorically rejected requests to re-summon Parliament. As is clear, such a move was more politically beneficial to the opposition. On Thursday, Charitha Maithri Gunaratne of Barnes Place, Colombo, filed a Fundamental Rights petition before the Supreme Court challenging the parliamentary elections. He is a former member of the Colombo Municipal Council and the son of Maithri Gunaratne, a former Governor and backer of Sajith Premadasa. He is an SJB candidate for the Gampaha district. More are to follow. Their recourse is now to the Supreme Court. That too seems a tough hurdle. At the end, they would have to settle for election campaigns more divided than united.

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