A medical worker wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) gear collects a swab sample from a woman to test for the COVID-19 coronavirus, in Colombo on July 14, 2020 (AFP)
Pressure from SJB,UNP to delay elections
After the discovery of a fresh bout of COVID- 19 and the detecting of patients from the Kandakadu drug rehabilitation centre and those in contact with it, new hurdles stand in the way of conducting the Parliamentary Elections on August 5. After the re-emergence of the latest cluster of Corona patients, the Rajangana area of the Anuradhapura district was shut down for public movements, and it led to the postponement of postal voting in the area last Monday. Likewise, the outbreak affected electioneering by the respective political parties and the independent groups in the fray, especially in terms of conducting major election rallies. The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) suspended its main rallies as a result of the pandemic.In the face of the latest outbreak of the disease , Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) leader Sajith Premadasa and United National Party (UNP) Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe called for the postponement of the elections once again. However, the SLPP , as the governing party,is resisting such pressure with all vigour.Of course, there are political interests in the calls for the postponement of polling . The SLPP also has political need in the conduct of elections as soon as possible. Having won the presidential elections, it aims at securing parliamentary control at the upcoming elections. The SJB and the UNP, well aware of the potential outcome, will be happy if the elections are withheld once again. Nonetheless, individual candidates are not in favour of any postponement because they have already spent quite a lot of resources - money, time etc- in the electioneering process. SJB candidate Sarath Fonseka spelled out his sentiments in clear cut terms despite his leadership having different thoughts in this respect.Whatever any party or individual says, it is unlikely that the government would shut down the country despite scattered COVID-19 clusters in the country. Most countries in the world that witnessed a second outbreak of the disease did not go for a complete lockdown since the economic consequences of such action will be far more serious than the damage from the pandemic itself. Instead, the pandemic has now resulted in a ‘new normal’ situation in which people carry out their routine livelihood activities subject to health guidelines.
As such, the current development in Sri Lanka also warrants the evolution of mechanisms to proceed with normal activities in conformity with health precautions rather than locking down the country. Shutdown will be an option only if the pandemic rages alarmingly.In such a new normal scenario in the world, the elections should also be conducted with proper health guidelines instead of postponing them. In this instance, the Election Commission can take a leaf from the book of South Korea which was one of the very first countries to have elections after the pandemic started taking its toll across the globe. South Korea conducted polls on April 15.In the implementation of some health guidelines, South Korea can obviously do better due to the availability of advanced technology such as electronic voting. Nevertheless, basic health principles that apply both in Sri Lanka and South Korea remain the same.In order for people to cast their ballots on polling day, the Election Commission has stipulated guidelines such as washing their hands or cleaning them with sanitiser, wearing face masks, testing body temperatures and standing with one metre apart.
When the Election Commission rehearsed the conduct of elections in accordance with basic health guidelines earlier by taking mock polling, the pandemic had been contained with a vigorous process of contact tracing and testing. So, the Election Commission had no need to pay attention to taking polls under certain circumstances such as the arrangement of facilities for those voters living in restricted areas and quarantine centres.Following the identification of a patient for the first time in more than 70 days from the community, the election authorities are now facing fresh challenges in taking polling - to ensure voting rights for those in quarantine centres or living in restricted areas. In South Korea, separate booths had been arranged for those with a body temperature above
37. 5c. These booths were disinfected after use by every such voter. In that country, people who had tested positive for the disease were allowed to vote at certain times and especially designated polling stations. Social distancing was practised at polling stations.Postponement of the elections is not a choice for the Sri Lankan Election Commission as things stand at the moment. It is not a viable option for the elections to be delayed for an indefinite period since no one is certain when the pandemic will conclude. The virus would remain at least for another one and half or two years in the world according to forecasts by the World Health Organization (WHO). It can be eradicated if a vaccine is developed.The present Parliament, even if reconvened, cannot function beyond August since its official term expires. Therefore, the conduct of the elections according to health guidelines is the only option . The Government will not favour the idea of postponing elections since such an action is not in its political interests either. However, the election authorities will have emerging challenges in addition to pressure from parties in the fray to delay polling. In the accommodation of the agents of contesting parties and groups in counting rooms, the election authorities are grappling with a challenge. A party or an independent group can nominate five agents. It means the accommodation of such a large number according to social distancing guidelines in a small room designated for counting ballot papers is a challenging task, of course. The Commission is presently taking into account all these aspects. The Government will also do its best to prevent the further spread of the disease and create a suitable atmosphere for conducting polls with minimum hassle. The absence of facilities for electronic voting and advanced voting is a disadvantage when conducting polls during a pandemic.
The failure on the part of the authorities concerned to gazette health regulations for the conduct of polling is yet another hurdle standing in the way of the election authorities. The Commission held talks with the Public Health Inspectors yesterday to explore the possibilities of gazetting them.Despite whatever obstacles , the Commission is determined to have elections as planned.