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Constitutional Crisis looms as poll date goes beyond three months of dissolution

ECONOMYNEXT – Constitutional experts are saying that because the President is accountable to Parliament it is vital that the House be reconvened to deal with the COVID 19 crisis.

The executive arm of the government has deployed the armed forces, enforced police curfews and taken action to distribute essentials, all justified in order to combat the COVID 19 epidemic but these actions need to have legal cover from Parliament they point out.

Also the money being spent by the government to fight COVID 19 has to be drawn from the Consolidated Fund, but only for a fixed period.

The Executive can run the government and respond to emergencies only for a three-month period after the dissolution of the parliament. Because of the current situation obviously the period could not be adhered to.

Academic Dr Asanga Welikala and Attorney Suren Fernando point out that the “Constitution and the Parliamentary Elections Act allow both the date of the election and the date for the first meeting to be varied. But they do not, under any circumstances, permit such rescheduled dates to be set beyond three months from the date of the original proclamation of dissolution.”

But now the election date has been fixed for June 20, 18 days after the 3-month period is over prompting the opposition to say that the original dissolution is invalid.

Addressing the Media today, Cabinet Spokesman Media Minister Bandula Gunewardene said that all the “talk about a Constitutional Crisis comes from overseas sources.”

He said that the President has the powers to spend government money on the needs of the country, even three months after a new Parliament is elected.

“Anyway President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will not be reconvening Parliament under any circumstances,” he said.

Responding to reports circulating on social media former Speaker Karu Jayasuriya said he too would not recall Parliament on his own. However if the courts ordered him to do so he would, he said on Twitter.

Academic and President’s Counsel Dr Jayampathy Wickremeratne says the simplest solution is for the President to rescind the dissolution order and extend the life of Parliament until September which would have given the country the breathing space to get over the COVID 19 hurdle.

Elections then could have been postponed to December if necessary.

Parliament could “agree to meet for two days a month and pass the budget for the COVID 19 issue,” he said.

“The President should stop being stubborn and reconvene Parliament,” he said.

Many notable people, including Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith the Catholic Bishop of Colombo have said that the virus should be the priority for the country and not the elections.

The Opposition, led by the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) have said that an election campaign conducted with restrictions on the movement of people and a ban on gatherings will not be free and fair. SJB leader Sajith Premadasa has gone a step further saying that the poll cannot be conducted “until the last patient is cured.” That is unrealistic as COVID 19 is probably here to stay.

The United National Party also weighed in today, April 23, with General Secretary Akila Viraj Kariyawasam also calling for Parliament to be reconvened adding that the Opposition is prepared to assist the Government “to pass essential laws and funds necessary to prevent the spread of the COVID-19.”

“This is not the time to move away from democracy for narrow political gains, it could create serious implications for the future. We need to be farsighted in this hour and now work as a country, not as political parties or groups, which will endanger public lives,” he stated.

He also asked why a poll date was set without proper consultations and “assurances from health experts and other key stakeholders, arguing that priority should be given to public safety and health during the COVID-19 crisis.”

Wickremeratne also warned against various civic and political leaders saying that it would be better for the government to run for a few years “without Parliament.”

“That is a very dangerous idea, as it is the Parliament that oversees the Executive. The government is a three-legged stool, the Executive, Parliament and the Judiciary are the three legs and the Court is the weakest,” he said.

The stool cannot stand on two legs, he says.

Welikala and Fernando in their article sounded a warning at the state of affairs.

They wrote “the extent to which we can see the Government acting efficiently while remaining within the clear authority and rules established by the Constitution and other relevant laws, is the measure of success. If the appropriate balance is not struck, then we risk harming our democracy and encouraging authoritarianism.”

“Several weeks into the coronavirus crisis, it does not appear that the Government is getting this balance right,” they concluded. (Colombo, April 23, 2020)

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