June 20th 2020 is the new D-day for Sri Lanka’s postponed parliamentary elections. The three – member election commission that met in Colombo on April 20 has decided that fresh elections to the now dissolved parliament could be held on June 20. A notification to this effect has been duly gazetted. The parliamentary poll earlier scheduled for April 25 this year was put off indefinitely by the Election commission(EC) due to the spread of the Covid -19 pandemic in the Island . Sri Lanka is yet to come out of the coronavirus woods but the Election commission in its wisdom has now scheduled polls for June 20.
The EC comprising former Commissioner of Elections Mahinda Deshapriya, retired Legal Draftsman Nalin Abeyesekera PC and Ex-Jaffna University vice-chancellor Dr.Ratnajeevan Hoole met in Colombo on Monday April 20th. Earlier it was doubtful whether Dr. Hoole residing in Jaffna would be able to make it to Colombo on time. There were also media reports suggesting that the Election Commission itself was hopelessly divided on the issue of holding an early election. It is learnt that there was much discussion and debate among EC members on the matter. Many dates were proposed and rejected. Finally the EC arrived a decision by consensus and announced the June 20 date.
Prior to the Intra- EC confabulations, the election commission chaired by Mahinda Deshapriya met top officials of the health sector, police, army, postal services, government printer and other stakeholders to review the covid-19 situation and decide when polls could be held.Another meeting was held with all district secretaries who would be acting as the district returning officers in the election.
On April 21st the Election Commission met representatives from all registered political parties . Political parties were asked to send only two representatives each due to Covid -19 threat. Since Ratnajeevan Hoole had returned to Jaffna only Mahinda Deshapriya and Nalin Abeyesekera represented the EC at the discussions with political parties. The discussions were in two segments with one group of parties in the morning and another in the afternoon. The political parties protested strongly at not being consulted prior to the announcement being made. They also raised objections to an election being held at a time when the corona pandemic had still not been brought under control. They pointed out that campaigning for elections would aggravate the risk and emphasised the safety of the people. EC chairman Deshapriya said that he too was concerned about public health and safety. The EC Chairman said that the June 20 date was by no means final. He said that the situation would be reviewed on May 4th. If the health situation in the country was taking a turn for the worse the June 20th date would be postponed he assured.
In what appears to be a very, very curious coincidence the new election date of June 20 also happens to be the birthday of President Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Gota would be celebrating his 71st birthday on June 20. Some have commented in lighter vein that June 20 being fixed by the EC was a birthday present to the president. They point out that the presidential election held last year was on Nov 16 and that after winning the poll, Gota was sworn in as President on Nov 18. This was the birthday of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Interestingly enough this point was raised by ACMC Leader Rishad Bathiudeen at the EC Meeting. When the former minister accused the EC of favouring Gota by fixing the date on June 20, EC chairman responded sternly and dismissed Rishad’s charges vehemently. He explained that the new date was finalised to provide eight weeks time from the old date of April 25. Some have pointed out that Contrary to the accusation of the June 20 date being favourable to the Govt , the reality was that the new date in mid-june may actually causes fresh problems. This writer however suspects a mischievous whim at play on the part of the EC in picking June 20. At least two of the EC Members have displayed an impish streak at times.
Obviously it is too early to predict whether the elections would take place wholly or in parts because of the fickle fluctuations of the Covid-19 spread. There are many who doubt whether the health situation would be conducive for an election even on June 20.Even though a free and fair poll to elect a new parliament would be most welcome, it is the health and safety of the people that is of paramount importance. Hence the Election date has to be predicated on that basic premise and could be subject to a change if circumstances warrant it. The EC Chairman himself has confirmed that the situation would be reviewed on May 4th and if health circumstances necessitate it the June 20 date could be postponed again.
The fixing of a specific date for elections by the EC would no doubt be welcomed by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother Prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa on one count. Both of them – the former indirectly and the latter directly – have maintained the position that the announcement of a new date for polls was the duty and responsibility of the EC. Although the election commission demurred and even wanted the president to seek the advice of the supreme court on the matter (which was rejected by the president’s secretary Dr.PB Jayasundara on behalf of the president), the EC has now scheduled a date on its own. This should make the Rajapaksa brothers happy but there is a hitch.
The president while being happy about a new date being announced may not be too happy about it being on June 20(even though it’s his B’day). It is an open secret that the Rajapaksa regime would have liked the fresh elections to have been at an earlier date in late May. The dates being bandied about by Gota’s Golayas were May 20, 23, 27 and 28. This was mainly due to the Govt NOT wanting to reconvene parliament on or before June 2. President Rajapaksa wanted to to avoid the necessity of reconvening the dissolved parliament as an emergency measure or being compelled to rescind his Mar 2 presidential proclamation dissolving Parliament.
Now that elections are fixed for June 20 the fate of the earlier proclamation scheduling June 2 as date of reconvening Parliament is sealed. If Parliament is not re-convened or if the Mar 2 Gazette is not rescinded and a new date for Parliament re-convening fixed ,the earlier gazette loses validity. Thus the country would be faced with a “no Parliament” situation for a further indefinite period exceeding the Constitutional limit of 3 months.This would give rise to much speculation of a legalistic and constitutional nature.Chief among them would be the question of whether elections being held on June 20 would avert the “Constitutional Crisis” Sri Lanka was heading for or whether it would bring in its wake a host of new issues including a constitutional deadlock. Already some political parties and civil society organizations have stated that they are contemplating legal action. The prospect of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa “ruling” for an open-ended period without a Parliament or Constitutional sanction is not a welcome state of affairs.These matters will be delved into in greater detail in due course.
What seems very likely at the present juncture is that the announcement of the election date will run into a storm of protests from various political parties, civil society organizations and rights groups engaged in public interest litigation. The salient factor highlighted by those opposing an early election was about whether the health situation was conducive to the holding of elections. It was emphasized that officials and experts knowledgeable about health and pandemic issues should be consulted and election dates should be fixed according to their advice. Against that backdrop one would not be surprised if public health experts initiate legal action opposing the election being held on June 20 if they feel the date is inappropriate.Let us then wait and see.
The above stated paragraphs are an update for an article written earlier by me. The article written on Saturday April 18th was published on Monday April 20 in the “Daily Mirror”. It was to be posted on my Blog (dbsjeyaraj.com) on Wednesday April 22nd morning. The article was more or less a speculative piece focusing on the Election Commission going to meet on April 20 to take a decision on an election date and about whether Sri lanka could emulate South Korea and conduct safe elections successfully. At the time of writing the Election Commission had not met but now at the time of posting on the blog the EC has not only met but also fixed a new date. Events have overtaken. The original article was therefore updated with the above written paragraphs to place the matter in perspective and keep readers informed of the latest developments. The earlier article appearing in the “Daily Mirror” is reproduced below without any changes.
Can Sri Lanka Follow South Korea in Conducting Safe Elections Successfully Amidst Covid-19?
Sri Lanka’s Election Commission comprising former Commissioner of Elections Mahinda Deshapriya, retired Legal Draftsman Nalin Abeyesekera PC and Ex-Jaffna University vice-chancellor Dr.Ratnajeevan Hoole , is scheduled to have an important conclave on Monday April 20th. The three wise men of the election commission will take up for discussion, the crucial question whether elections could be held to Sri Lanka’s parliament while the country is struggling to cope with and contain the Covid -19 pandemic.
The elections that were due to take place on April 25th were postponed indefinitely due to the prevailing Covid-19 threat by the Election commission on March 19. No new election date was given because of the prevailing pandemic. Earlier the new Parliament was to meet on May 14. Since Parliament dissolved on March 2 was required to re-convene within three months on or before June 2nd , it became necessary for a new date to be fixed in the second half of May.The commission opined that a new date in May was not possible amidst the prevailing health situation and requested President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to refer the matter to the Supreme court .
However the recent correspondence – publicised in the media – between the Election commission and the secretary to the president Dr.PB Jayasundara indicated that the key decision regarding elections would be the election commission’s responsibility. The President would not seek the opinion of courts.It also became clear that he would not rescind the gazette proclamation he made on March 2 and re-convene the dissolved parliament thereby negating the need for new elections. In short, the “holding elections decision” ball was in the election commission commission court.
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa
The Govt stance was re-ieterated firmly by prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. According to a report in an English newspaper the PM had said it was up to the Elections Commission to decide when to hold the next parliamentary election, and the government only had to implement that decision.“There are some people who want the government to hold the election while others are demanding a further postponement of the polls. We, as a government, are ready to follow the instructions of the Elections Commission (EC). It is the EC which decides when to hold the election, not us. In the meantime, many opine that there is no need for elections at all as the police, security forces and other essential services continue to carry out their services, irrespective of the danger prevailing. But we uphold the democratic values and are for holding elections at the due time. Whenever the Elections Commission decides to hold the election, we will participate in it,” the Premier said.
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa also issued a press release on April 18 under the heading” Coronavirus pandemic and the postponed Parliamentary election”. In that media communique premier Rajapaksa stated as follows – “On 2 March the President dissolved Parliament and fixed 25 April for the poll and 14 May for the first meeting of the new Parliament. Ten days later, when the first Coronavirus patient was found, the President did not have the power to postpone the poll. Under Section 24(3) of the Parliamentary Elections Act No: 1 of 1981, when the poll cannot be held on the day fixed by the President, the Elections Commission is mandatorily required to fix another day for the poll. They have no power to postpone the poll without fixing another date. Such mandatory legal requirements cannot be ignored on the basis of speculation as to what may or may not happen weeks and months into the future. The Elections Commission should first fulfill its duties under Section 24(3) and thereafter take up for discussion any outstanding issues.”
It is against this backdrop therefore that the three -member election commission(EC) chaired by Mahinda Deshapriya will be meeting this week to discuss the elections issue. The EC will also engage in consultations afterwards with relevant stake-holders in arriving at a decision. According to a report in this newspaper, Elections Commissioner N.J. Abeysekara had told the “Daily Mirror” that ‘the Election Commission would consult political parties, doctors, epidemiologists, the armed forces and the Police and all others fighting the war against COVID-19, after April 20 in order to take a decision on conducting Parliamentary elections. However, Mr. Abeysekara reiterated that the conduct of the polls entirely depended on the situation of the viral infection in the country.“The Elections Commission has the entire freedom and authority to decide the date of elections after it had been postponed and we couldn’t conduct elections as we planned. Under the prevailing situation, we also cannot decide an exact date. That is why we would meet the experts and consult with them,” Mr. Abeysekara told Daily Mirror.
Speculation About the EC Decision
There is much speculation among political circles about what the EC decision would be. Although the Govt maintains a outward stance of “non -involvement” in the Election commission’s decision -making process, the political grapevine keeps buzzing with unconfirmed reports of the Govt wanting an early poll notwithstanding the Covid -19 threat. (a Pohottuwa stalwart predicted on condition of anonymity that the EC would announce on April 23 that elections will be on May 28)
It appears that the Govt wants an early election for more reasons than one. Besides it seems to be confident that the Corona threat is prevalent only in a handful of districts. Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa’s April 18 statement illustrates this mindset. The statement says “ Things have to come back to normal sooner or later. In eleven of the 25 administrative districts, there have been no coronavirus patients at all. In another seven districts, there have been only one or two patients, and five to seven patients in two more districts. Only five districts have a high incidence of coronavirus patients”. The Prime minister’s statement gives rise to the thought whether the Govt is contemplating the possibility of staggered polls in certain “safe” districts.
It is in this context that the Election Commission would be arriving at a decision after discussions and consultations with key stake holders. The EC consists of knowledgeable, honourable members who have displayed a commendable sense of independence and dignity so far. Although there have been sharp areas of disagreement on certain matters among the commissioners in the past, the EC has always closed ranks in the final analysis. Apparently the commission members take an internal vote on areas of disagreement and then abide unanimously by the majority decision. The final decision is always by consensus. Thus it is to be hoped that the Elections Commission would arrive at a consensual united decision that would focus on the good of the nation at large rather than the interests of a political grouping.
Successful South Korea Elections
Meanwhile the debate on the issue of conducting elections amidst the Covid-19 pandemic acquired a fresh dimension both nationally and internationally thanks to South Korea. This east Asian nation with a population of 51 million people was severely afflicted with Corona virus disease. Yet it has managed to contain and control its spread to a very great extent. So much so that South Korea has been able to hold successful elections to its 300 member legislature successfully with a 66 % voter turn out on April 15. Incidently South Korea boasts of being the fourth largest economy in Asia and the 11th biggest economy in the world South Korea’s accomplishment of conducting elections in a Covid -19 stricken environment demonstrated that polls were indeed feasible in these times of a pandemic if correct measures were adopted. This naturally paved the way for different reactions to emerge in different countries.
In Sri Lanka, academic turned politician Prof. Gamini Lakshman Peiris, who is the SLPP chairman , touched on the South Korean example while speaking to “The Island” newspaper. Here are relevant excerpts from the April 16 “Island” report. “The PAFFREL on April 13 on behalf of a civil society grouping declared that 30 major elections world over were in jeopardy due to rapid spread of covid-19, but the former top legal academic(GL Peiris) pointed out that South Korea in spite of being one of the worst affected countries conducted parliamentary polls for the National Assembly yesterday, April 15”.
“Prof. Peiris said that he perused a spate of reports pertaining to South Korean elections and it was clear President Moon Jae-in took necessary measures to conduct the poll. In fact, they made special arrangements for coronavirus affected persons, too, to exercise their franchise.He said that South Korea was the first country to hold a countrywide poll amidst the pandemic. South Korea reported over 200 covid-19 deaths and over10, 500 of its citizens had tested positive.Asked whether the SLPP was trying to justify parliamentary election amidst crisis caused by the highly contagious virus, Prof. Peiris said that he merely pointed out that a nationwide poll was conducted in a country that had been severely affected by the deadly virus. The SLPP Chairman said that obviously the civil society grouping hadn’t been aware of the South Korean election.”
Early Election Inspired by South Korea?
Former Foreign Affairs minister GL Peiris’s comments created an impression among many that the SLPP govt, inspired by South Korea , was thinking of an early election amidst the Corona Pandemic. Two days later former UNP parliamentarian and current Samagi Jana Balavegaya(SJB) Colombo district candidate Dr.Harsha de Silva responded to queries posed by “The Island” regarding the South Korean election example being applicable to Sri Lanka.Here are the relevant excerpts- “Responding to another query, the former non-cabinet minister said that the government seemed in undue haste to prove that the unprecedented health emergency could be tackled soon to enable parliamentary polls. The SJB contestant scoffed at suggestions that Sri Lanka could hold parliamentary elections the way the South Koreans did, amidst health emergency caused by COVID-19.”
“The Colombo District candidate emphasized that the South Korean situation couldn’t be compared with that of Sri Lanka. If would be a grave mistake on the decision makers’ part to justify parliamentary elections here on the basis that there were only seven COVID-19 deaths here, compared to over 200 in South Korea.The former UNP lawmaker said that South Korea never locked down. Instead, the administration there carried out a very aggressive PCR testing and quarantine programme. De Silva pointed out that South Korea conducted some 540,000 PCR tests in a population of 51 mn people before last Wednesday’s election and was confident of the ground situation. But, Sri Lanka had conducted very much lesser number of PCR tests on 21.5 mn people here and the government was in the dark as regards the actual local situation, he asserted.”
“Having explained how South Korea took tangible measures to ensure the safety and security of voters, as well as the polling staff, the former MP urged the government to examine the two situations carefully without resorting to a disastrous course of action. South Korea polls shouldn’t be under any circumstances a reason to justify parliamentary polls, in Sri Lanka, amidst the continuing spread of coronavirus.”
Drawing a Parallel With South Korea
The attempt to promote the case for conducting polls in Sri Lanka in a pandemic situation by drawing a parallel with South Korea was strongly condemned by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna(JVP). Media reports quoted a hard-hitting statement by JVP national organizer Bimal Ratnayake in which the ex-MP asked the Govt whether Sri Lanka had the resources and capacity to replicate the same steps adopted by south Korea in conducting a safe election. This is what Bimal Ratnayake reportedly said – “The South Korean health authorities have issued a fresh warning that the next two weeks would be crucial after their election on April 15. They spent 14.3 million US Dollars only for the disinfectants provided at the polling booths alone. In addition, that government provided two sets of hand gloves for each voter. Their authorities took stringent safety measures, disinfecting all 14,000 polling stations, and requiring voters to wear masks, have their temperatures checked, use hand sanitizer and plastic gloves and maintain a safe distance from others. All elections officials, numbering over 26,000, had been provided with sets of complete personal protective equipment. For that purpose the South Korean government spent US $ 4.5 million. Irrespective of all those measures, the health experts have warned that the next two weeks would be very decisive for that country. So those who speak of holding elections, talking of the Korean experience, should take those factors into consideration.”
Speaking further Ratnayake said- “The government in power is not even capable of distributing the Rs. 5,000 allowance, among low income groups hit by the crisis. Grama Niladhari officers, across the country, withdrew from the duty of providing the Rs. 5,000 allowance due to a circular problem. According to their union, the project had been politicized in favour of the ruling party. It is such a government that now talks of holding elections.”
Possibility of Sri Lanka Emulating South Korea
These then are the arguments and counter arguments over the possibility of Sri Lanka emulating South Korea and conducting parliamentary elections despite the Covid -19 pandemic. The safety and well-being of the people is of paramount importance. There is no doubt that Sri Lanka has done remarkably well in combatting the Coronavirus pandemic so far. However attempting to hold elections in the current environment is a decision that requires much thought and planning. It cannot be taken by comparing apples and oranges. South Korea is not Sri Lanka and Sri Lanka is not South Korea. The pros and cons of a South Korea – Sri Lanka analogy has to be carefully considered by the people and their Govt before arriving at a crucially important decision.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This Article was written for the DBS Jeyaraj Column in the “Daily Mirror” of April 19, 2020, 2020. It can be accessed here: