By Chandani Kirinde
Handing over of nominations for the Parliamentary Poll closes at noon today(Mar 19) and the country is preparing to hold an election in five weeks despite the unpredictability and scale of the public health crisis the country could be faced with in the coming days.
When President Gotabaya Rajapaksa dissolved Parliament on 3 March, there was no warning that COVID-19 would become a global pandemic, but less than three weeks later, it is clear that Sri Lanka’s in the fight against an unlikely enemy for the long run along with the rest of the world.
Except for the ruling party, most other parties are questioning the rationale behind holding an election at a time when medical experts and others in the frontline of the fight against COVID-19 have warned large gatherings of people is the one thing that has to be avoided if the spread of the virus is to be curtailed.
We have already seen that it is politicians who have broken this rule the most so far, because without their supporters surrounding them and cheering them on, politicians become insecure. So, unless all campaigning is strictly restricted, only to be done through social media, newspapers, radio or television, there is little that would dissuade politicians and their supporters from gathering in large numbers.
But even if such restrictions are put in place, given the nature of election campaigning in the country, there are likely to be public rallies after today as the campaign period gets underway, which leaves the door wide open to the possibility of a large-scale spread of COVID-19.
Another scenario to consider even if campaigns are kept low-key is how thousands of public officials can be mobilised for election duty at a time like this. For last November’s Presidential Election, around 400,000 public officials were placed on duty and over 60,000 Police personnel and over 8,000 Civil Defence Force (CDF) personnel were deployed. There were also 1,550 centres which were packed to capacity with officials on duty as well as representatives of political parties who are allowed to observe the counting, which again means a large number of people gathering in close proximity of each other.
The 400,000 officials who would be called up for election duty will have to be drawn from among those in the public service who are already entrusted with the task of ensuring that the essential services in the country are maintained during these trying times.
This week was declared a holiday for the public sector but officials have continued to work, with the Ministry of Public Administration and Home Affairs, instructing them that essential services are to be kept up and running. These include ensuring there is no scarcity of food and medicine and water, electricity, health services, international banking activities, etc. are maintained without any disruption.
This is in addition to directives that have gone out to all ministry secretaries, chief secretaries of Provincial Councils, District/Divisional Secretaries, heads of other Government institutions as well as Grama Sevaka officers to open COVID-19 awareness centres and maintain registers of patients while coordinating activities with the Police and health authorities, etc., in addition to handling all their regular duties.
An election at this juncture would entail that a large numbers of the public officials who are in the forefront of the programs to combat COVID-19 would have to be deployed on election duty in the next few weeks, thus taking way the vital human resource that is need more urgently at this time to deal with the health crisis.
The same overload would be put on Police personnel who are assisting in the preventive and quarantine programs. So even if campaigns are low-key, we have to consider if it is viable to withdraw a large number of public officials who are engaged in dealing with an unpredicted public health emergency from their work and deploy them to conduct an election.
Then there are the voters. The total number eligible to vote in the upcoming election stands at 16,263,885, over 270,000 the number registered to vote at last November’s Presidential Poll. Sri Lankan are known for their love for exercising their franchise and voting averages at national elections have remained high at over 80% or over. In the Presidential Election, 81.5% of registered voters cast their ballots. A high voter turnout means a clearer and stronger mandate for those elected.
Sri Lanka saw some of the lowest polling at the Presidential Election held in 1988 with only around 55% of voters braving the violence that had beset the country amidst a JVP-led insurrection. In the Parliamentary Election held a few months later in early 1989, voter turnout moved up to about 63%, still short of the high percentage of voters that usually turn up to cast their ballot.
While it was guns and bombs that kept voters away during the late 1980s, in 2020 the rapid spread of COVID-19 will no doubt deter voters, and while this may be an advantage, mainly to the ruling party, it would mean thousands of voters being deprived of a free and fair chance to exercise their franchise if fear of contracting an illness keeps them way.
This could particularly affect elderly voters in a country where over 11% of the population is over 65 years old, all eligible voters if they are registered to do so, and the most vulnerable group where serious COVID-19 infection is concerned.
Elections are important, especially as they are considered the yardstick by which we measure the functionality of democracy. Sri Lankans take pride in the fact that we have conducted elections under most trying circumstances, through war and insurrections to economic downturns and assassinations of political leaders.
But 2020 is different and unlike anything we have experienced before. In this scenario the Government and authorities owe it to every citizen to ensure that the election is conducted only when each and every voter feels free and safe to go out and cast their vote and that would mean postponing the election.