The containment of Covid spread in Sri Lanka relative to other countries, including its immediate neigbours, had put the government on a strong footing to face the general elections on August 5. Since the curfew and lockdowns ended in mid-May there has been a major relaxation of tension within the country regarding the Covid virus. Even government leaders began to take the matter lightly, as evidenced in the funeral arrangements for a former minister which saw tens of thousands of his party supporters jostling at the funeral which was attended by the most senior government leaders. More recently President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was seen mingling with crowds of supporters at election rallies.
In this context, the identification of a new cluster of Covid infection centering around a rehabilitation centre in Polonnaruwa has caused much public agitation. The discovery of a similar Covid cluster amongst navy personnel who were part of the security forces effort in leading the anti-Covid campaign was dealt with effectively without causing panic. The decision of the ruling party to halt its bigger election campaign activities for three days can be viewed positively as a message of care given by government leaders that there is a serious health crisis and they are giving priority to the people’s health over their electoral activities. The government’s decision to close all schools this week is a similar message of care in view of reports that young schoolchildren are amongst those infected.
Adding to the sense of crisis is the call by the two main opposition parties for elections to be postponed yet again. The UNP and its breakaway SJB have shown themselves to be likeminded in seeking this postponement for a third time. One factor that might be motivating them is the crippling division that took place within the UNP which will cost both factions a significant number of parliamentary seats at the forthcoming elections. Perhaps they feel that time will be the great healer and that if the elections are postponed for a sufficiently long period they will be able to overcome their differences and reunite. Another hope might be to utilize a period of postponement to seek the resurrection of the last parliament in which they together held a majority. This is unlikely to be possible in view of the Supreme Court decision in June regarding the postponement of elections.
At a time when rumours with political motivations can take the centre stage, it is important that the government shares the true situation with the people. The recent news report that a national university decided to stop its Covid testing as its positive cases were not being counted, and been rejected, needs to be investigated and clarified by independent authorities. There has been an undercurrent of suspicion that the full spread of the Covid virus was not being disclosed for political reasons. The elevated status recently given by Russia to Sri Lanka as only one of 13 countries that is successful in managing Covid spread and to which Russian airlines could fly to is an exception. Neither has the EU or UK given Sri Lanka such a positive assessment nor has Sri Lanka been acknowledged as a success in managing Covid by international agencies.
The sudden spike in Covid infection can be politically damaging to the government. Its ability to contain the virus formed the basis of its election campaign to demonstrate success in governance. The success of Sri Lanka in keeping its Covid casualty figures extraordinarily low in comparison both to its neighbours and to more developed countries has been greatly appreciated by the electorate who have been witnessing the ongoing tragedies unfold in other parts of the world. The government will need to win back the confidence of the people with regard to its success in Covid management in order to reach its ambitious target of parliamentary seats at the forthcoming general elections.
In recent weeks the government has come under pressure due to a number of factors that could have electoral implications. One is its position on the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) grant of USD 480 million from the United States. This grant became a major campaign issue at the presidential election. The present government leaders bitterly opposed it and claimed that it would be to the detriment of the country’s unity and national sovereignty. However, after the US ambassador stated that a decision on the agreement will be taken after the Parliamentary election in August the issue of the government’s actual position on this grant has surfaced again. The issue over Japanese and Indian investments in Colombo Port, and in relation to the already existing Chinese role, needs also to be resolved.
A wide swathe of supporters of the government has also been disconcerted by the government’s unwillingness to take action against former LTTE commander Karuna who is now a political leader and campaigning for the government. He recently claimed to have killed 2-3,000 soldiers during the war in attempting to boost his credentials with the constituencies in the Eastern province which was formerly a war zone. This has generated a major controversy with many government supporters demanding his arrest and punishment. International human rights organisations, including the UNHRC, have issued calls for an investigation into his claims which fall into the category of war crimes. It must also be remembered that he was deported from the UK citing human rights abuses, including the recruitment of children into combat.
However, even more, significant than these ideology and emotion-ridden issues is the continuing deterioration of the living standards of people due to the Covid-induced crisis. Many thousands of businesses are in jeopardy and tens of thousands of workers have been either laid off or are in danger of losing their jobs. This is coupled with the problem of the expatriate Sri Lankan workforce wanting to return to the country due to inhospitable conditions abroad. Many have lost their jobs and are at risk of Covid infection and are pleading to get back to their country, and the slowness of the repatriation process is a matter of humanitarian concern. Hundreds of Sri Lankans living overseas flocked into the country to cast their votes at the Presidential Elections and would be feeling betrayed at their country’s reluctance to take them back when they so desperately need its refuge.
In these circumstances, there is the call for the postponement of elections. However, this would lead to a continuation of the status quo in which the caretaker government is making decisions on huge economic investments and loans that are morally and legally beyond the scope of a caretaker government. In addition, difficult decisions are not being made because all parties are thinking about the elections to come. At the present time, only President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has the mandate from the people. He has been using this to govern with the help of the security forces who are taking over the role of the civilian administration. A government formed out of a parliament with a fresh mandate from the people will have the legitimacy and be adequately representative of the present balance of forces to take the considered and difficult decisions to cope with the manifold problems that beset the country. (Colombo, July 14, 2020)