Sri Lanka’s Election Commission has set the country’s parliamentary election for June 20, after it postponed the April 25 polls in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sri Lanka has reported 309 coronavirus cases and seven deaths so far. A total of 33 infections were detected on Monday, the highest number to be recorded on a single day, prompting authorities to move 1,010 people from a working class neighbourhood in Colombo to quarantine.
“We are controlling the spread of the virus and increasing testing rates too. But it’s difficult for anybody to say when the pandemic will end,” Dr. Anil Jasinghe, Director General of Public Health, told The Hindu on Tuesday.
According to him, Sri Lanka conducted 695 tests on Monday. “We want to increase it to 1,000 a day soon.”
The Election Commission’s announcement came two days after Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa said in a statement that the Commission was “mandatorily required” to fix a new date for the polls. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s secretary too wrote to the Commission on April 9, emphasising citizens’ right to franchise, and the Commission’s “responsibility” to fix the date for the election.
On Tuesday, top officials of the Election Commission met representatives of different political parties. Following the meeting, former Leader of Opposition Sajith Premadasa told media that polls must be held only after health officials gave a public guarantee that it was safe to do so.
Spelling out his rationale for choosing June 20 as the poll date, Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya reportedly said he had calculated seven weeks’ time for poll campaign beginning a week after April 27, when authorities have promised to further ease the nationwide curfew. This was confirmed to The Hindu by Election Commissioner Ratnajeevan Hoole.
However, Mr. Deshapriya told political party representatives that the date was “subject to revision”, according to former Tamil National Alliance legislator M.A. Sumanthiran. “We collectively raised objection to the fact that the parties were not even consulted before the Commission announced the date. And we don’t know where we stand in terms of the pandemic’s spread,” he told The Hindu.
Despite the Commission’s justifications, Opposition parties are not convinced.
They raise concern broadly on three grounds — public health, the prospect of a free and fair election in unprecedented circumstances and constitutional questions arising from President Rajapaksa dissolving Parliament on March 2, calling for snap polls on April 25.
“The ground situation is still worrisome. So many people’s health is at peril, so many have lost their livelihoods… how can we think of elections amid the ruthless spread of the pandemic?” asked Rauff Hakeem, leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and a former MP, who was among those who met the EC chairman on Tuesday.
Vijitha Herath, a former MP of the leftist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, who also attended the meeting, said: “We are in the midst of a pandemic, and our people are suffering. In our view, it is not suitable to hold polls now,” he told The Hindu.
Opposition parties also accuse the government of “electioneering in the guise of pandemic response”.
The former legislators point to a Presidential Task Force on Essential Services led by Basil Rajapaksa, brother of the President and the Prime Minister, who is also the national organiser of the ruling Sri Lanka People’s Party (SLPP).
“How can it be a free and fair election when they [government] have an unfair advantage,” Mr. Herath asked.
Further, pointing to Article 70(5) of Sri Lanka’s Constitution, Mr. Hakeem, also a lawyer, said there was an imminent constitutional crisis as Parliament has to be summoned not later than three months after the proclamation dissolving the House [March 2]. “The Election Commission has scheduled polls for June 20, which is clearly outside that three-month limit,” Mr. Hakeem said, adding: “We expected the Election Commission to be an independent body, not a lapdog of this government.”
The JVP shared the opinion that reconvening Parliament “is the best available option to avert a constitutional crisis,” according to Mr. Herath.
However, President Rajapaksa on Monday said in a television programme that he had “no intention of reconvening the previous Parliament”. Government members have maintained that the opposition’s resistance to polls came from its “fear of defeat”.
On the President’s refusal to reconvene the legislature, Mr. Hakeem said the Executive [President] has “clearly shown that he does not like to be constrained by Parliament,” and noted that the country was “permitting a creeping dictatorship”.
Commenting on the development, TNA Leader R. Sampanthan, one of Sri Lanka’s senior most politicians, said the President was responsible to Parliament, as was the Cabinet of Ministers under him. But there is no Parliament in session. “The new Parliament will not convene on the date originally expected… this uncertainty cannot continue,” he told The Hindu.
“Our law provides for such a situation. The Constitution [Article 70 (7)] says that in the case of an emergency, the President can convene the old Parliament to be in session either until the emergency is resolved or a new election is held, whichever happens first. Then, the President must do that. His responsibility and the collective answerability of the Cabinet to Parliament is a continuing constitutional obligation,” he said.