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Government’s dilemma; beat COVID 19 or hold elections

ECONOMYNEXT – President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has a tough task ahead as he has to choose between holding elections on time at the end of May risking a fresh outbreak of COVID 19 infections or face a full-blown Constitutional crisis.

With the Parliament dissolved a newly elected House needs to sit by June 2nd and to do so elections have to be held within the next few weeks.

All this is simple, if you are to listen to Minister Wimal Weerawansha.

In a video available on YouTube Weerawansha said that the government is confident it is winning the battle with COVID 19.

“We can go into the election with confidence as we have beaten the virus,” he said. “If in case an election is not possible within the period, then there will be no Parliament, but we have a President who has been elected by a huge margin and it will be his prerogative,” the Minister said.

“Parliament will not be there and the Constitution has no provisions to deal with such a situation, so it will be up to the President,” he added.

“The courts will have no role,” he said.

Not so fast, says Constitutional expert Dr Jayampathy Wickremeratne.

“The governance structure is like a three-legged stool and the country needs the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary to function. The President is answerable to Parliament and the country cannot function without the House,” he told EconomyNext.

The country cannot run without a Parliament for more than three months according to the Basic Law and that is why it is essential that a poll needs to be held at the end of May.

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“If that happens there will be an unprecedented crisis,” Wickremeratne warned.

But there is a way out, he says. “The President can rescind his order dissolving Parliament which will buy time. Parliament can then nominally reconvene and continue until the end of its five-year term in August. Then Parliament can be dissolved and fresh elections called.”

This Wickramaratne said would allow the country to get over the COVID 19 epidemic.

Eminent legal scholar Dr Nihal Jayawickreme has also proposed the same solution.

“If the parties are agreed that the same nominations for the polls are needed then a one-time Constitutional Amendment in these extraordinary times could be agreed to among the parties and proposed to the courts,” Wickramaratne added.

This solution is also supported by ex-parliamentarians such as Mangala Samaraweera.

“Parliament could also pass a Supplementary Estimate to battle the COVID 19 pandemic,” he proposed in a statement issued today, April 15.

“I don’t want to contest an election where I have to climb over a pile of dead bodies to do so,” he said.

There is no doubt that a section of the government, particularly many of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna leaders who have been nominated to run in the elections would prefer a quick campaign and a May-end poll.

The SLPP can win, but whether the party still has the momentum to win big is in some doubt.

Even the usually optimistic high profile Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi conceded “that we are sure of winning 113 seats” which is a simple majority in Parliament.

The SLPP would prefer to win 150+ a two-thirds majority with which the party would roll-back the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.

People are angry because of the restrictions on livelihoods and the damage done to the general economy, the loss of income by the COVID 19 pandemic and rightly or wrongly tend to blame the government in power.

The longer these restrictions go on the less popular the government will be.

Professor Ratnajeevan Hoole who is a member of the National Elections Commission wrote earlier this month that the Commission stated that the elections cannot be held on time for the new Parliament to meet by 2 June, 2020.

“If we set that date, it would mean one of two things. One, the public in fear of COVID-19 would not stand in lines to vote. That means they will lose their franchise but will exercise their franchise if we do not rush into polls and watch the situation. This care for the franchise of the people, therefore, seems insincere and disingenuous to me, to service a narrow political agenda rather than any national cause as the time urgently calls for” he said.

Hoole also warned that if the country were to “guestimate when the pandemic will be over, and set a date and the pandemic is still raging, people will go to the polls, stand in crowded lines, and spread this life-threatening virus. Alternatively, we might have 225 MPs elected with a handful of votes each as happened in the 1990s when EPDP MPs got returned sometimes with under 10 votes as a result of LTTE death threats against those who go to vote.”

The situation is comparable to that of the Presidential election of 1988 when the poll went ahead while two insurrections in both the North and the South were raging and the Indian Peacekeeping Force was in the country.

The then opposition candidate Sirimavo Bandaranaike insisted that the poll be postponed until the threats to voters from the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna in the South and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in the North ended. But the government of the day went ahead and brought the ruling UNP candidate to power even though barely half the registered electorate voted.

Another danger the Samagi Jana Balavegaya has pointed out is that the government is also imposing something of an extra-Constitutional autocratic regime on the country “in the guise of fighting the COVID 19” pandemic.

With that machinery in hand, the Media behaving like well-trained puppies and the police arresting even people who criticize the government on Facebook, the President is in a powerful position to control the environment in the country during the elections.

The Opposition is also in disarray and with voters and supporters fearful of gatherings because of the threat of the deadly virus, the ruling party could have a free run at the poll.

These are powerful temptations for the SLPP to run the risk of a COVID 19 outbreak and hold the elections, and win,  come what may. (Colombo, April 15, 2020)