The Commission does not seem to be seeing June 20 as feasible to conduct polling, though. Instead, it will look at a different date which is not that far from June 20
COVID-19 has brought about shape shifting in many an aspect of public life in the world. So to speak, it is bound to make way for a new culture of political campaigning for elections on the cards in Sri Lanka. It is realistic because people, though unwillingly, are required to get accustomed to live with the coronavirus for at least a year or so till not only a new vaccine is developed, but also till it is commercially manufactured somewhere in the world and exported.
The signs of the new culture of political campaigning as part of the electoral process were spelled out by the Election Commission’s Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya at his meeting with the representatives of the political parties that participated in the general election on Tuesday (March 13).
Deshapriya, in his address, did not articulate whether the elections would be conducted on June 20 or postponed. Instead, he spoke, at somewhat length, about measures to conduct the elections subject to overriding health concerns. The increase in the number of polling stations and counting centres, the change of polling time and an alternative to the indelible ink applied on voters’ fingers were cited by him as steps that can be adopted to prevent the possible transmission of the disease among people during the election process. Such moves would minimise contact among people when turning up at polling stations, casting ballots and discharging election-related duties.
Deshapriya, as Chairman of the Commission, did not spell out any definite idea about the day of polling obviously due to the judicial process initiated by some parties including the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB). However, he came out with suggestions to conduct the elections in a situation in which COVID-19 is not eradicated once and for all. It is amply evident that the Election Commission, at least by majority decision, if not unanimity, is interested in concluding the elections without postponing it for an indefinite period. This is despite rigorous calls for the postponement of the elections. The Commission does not seem to be seeing June 20 as feasible to conduct polling, though. Instead, it will look at a different date which is not that far from June 20 to conduct polls, subject to the ruling by the Supreme Court after hearing the Fundamental Rights applications filed seeking postponement of the elections.
Deshapriya, or the Commission for that matter, has valid reason to think of conducting the elections as early as possible. One thing is that it is impractical and unrealistic to wait for an indefinite period till the coronavirus is wiped out from the globe. Furthermore, it is impossible to keep Parliament inoperative for a prolonged period according to the governing model of Sri Lanka where there is a clear demarcation of power between the executive, legislative and judicial arms of government.
Likewise, the old Parliament, if not for its premature dissolution by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa by virtue of power vested with him in the Constitution on March 2, will complete its five year term on August 31. Even if the dissolved Parliament is activated by reconvening it as requested by the parties in the opposition, it cannot remain functional after August. Then, the elections should, anyway, be conducted. As such, the Commission is evolving guidelines to conduct the polls at one stage despite the outbreak
The call for postponement of the elections is politically motivated. It became apparent at Tuesday’s meeting. The representatives of the parties aligned with the governing side—the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP), Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), Communist Party etc—asked for early elections. Also, these representatives including the likes of Foreign Relations Minister Dinesh Gunawardane, requested the Commission to assign preferential numbers to the candidates in the fray.
Besides, Chairman of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) Prof. G.L. Peiris said it would take time at least till April next year for the total eradication of the coronavirus, and therefore the elections could not be withheld until such time.
The parties representing the political opposition argued otherwise. Citing the gravity of the crisis triggered by the coronavirus, they said it was not advisable to have the polls on June 20. After giving ear to the political party representatives, Mr. Deshapriya said the Commission was not prepared to conduct the polls at the cost of human lives no matter what.
“All the Commission members are even above 65. So, they are in the age group vulnerable to COVID-19. If the COVID-19 situation worsens, we will be exposed to danger more than others. We are not ready to have elections over the dead bodies of people at all. We are mindful of health factors,” he said.
Nevertheless, he spelled out guidelines to conduct the elections while taking precautions. This led to belief among the participants that he is keen on taking polling at one point.
The political opposition, according to informed sources, insist on deferring elections at least till August or September whereas the governing side wants to have it at least by July.
In this instance, enormous pressure has built on the Election Commission. On the one hand, judicial action has been instituted citing the Commission members as respondents. On the other hand the Commission believes the prolonged delay of the elections is nothing but deprivation of public sovereignty. The Commission holds the view that it is the inalienable right of people.
The officials of the commission along with Deshapriya worked till midnight on Tuesday regarding legal preparations for the court cases involved. The commission obviously has a hard time in taking a decision regarding polling day. However, it will take whatever decision only after the court ruling is delivered next week.