Last week was eventful for several reasons, some positive and some negative, if not tragic. On Wednesday, June 10 the Election Commission (EC) Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya addressing a news briefing announced that the long-awaited general election would be held on August 5 by strictly adhering to the guidelines issued by health authorities. Initially, to have been held on April 25 as stated in the presidential proclamation of March 2, it was postponed to June 20 by the EC because of the pandemic situation then prevailing in the country.
The EC’s Commissioner General Saman Sri Ratnayake is reported to have told a weekend newspaper that there would be no more postponements, and the election would go ahead even in the event of their being a surge in COVID19 cases. He said the EC would set up special polling stations wherever they were needed to enable even those under quarantine to cast their ballots.
Nearly 16.2 million voters are eligible to vote at the upcoming general election, which according to Mr Deshapriya is estimated to cost between Rs 9.5 billion and Rs.10 billion as against the previously estimated Rs.7.5 billion. He said the costs had sky-rocketed because of the mock elections and the additional measures being adopted to safeguard the health of all stakeholders. But despite the assurance given by the EC Chairman, how many of the registered voters would overcome their fear of a COVID19 infection and venture out of their homes to exercise their franchise is a matter left to be seen.
Meanwhile, the EC has in a gazette notice banned the use or misuse of State resources, whether movable or immovable, to promote a political party or a candidate. Any State employee found guilty of violating this directive would be liable to a fine of up to Rs.150,000 or a jail term not exceeding three years.
Public officials have also been prohibited from posting any comments or statements on their private social media accounts to promote or degrade any political party or candidate or indulge in spreading rumours, misinformation or hate speech.
The foregoing echoes President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s directive to heads of government institutions, corporations and statutory bodies urging them to refrain from working for any political party or engaging in any political activity at the upcoming general election. The directive issued through the Presidential Media Division said if any official wished to engage in election-related activities, he or she could do so by resigning from his or her post, and reiterated that the use or misuse of State resources for such activities would in no way be condoned.
We applaud the President and the EC Chairman for issuing these strictures, which if properly implemented, would to a large extent, help conduct a free and fair election and create a level playing field for all political parties and candidates in the fray.
Be that as it may, on Thursday we witnessed on electronic media the brutal killing in broad daylight of Lanka Self-Employed Professionals National Three-Wheeler Association President Sunil Jayawardene. He was beaten to death in Mirihana by eight thugs allegedly employed by an unregistered leasing company.
He was a 53-year-old father of three children. The only ‘sin’ he committed was to have approached this leasing company to plead for some form of redress to be provided to a trishaw owner, who was a member of the association headed by Mr. Jayawardene. It is sad that though repeatedly warned to only patronize finance or leasing companies registered with the Central Bank, unsuspecting people continue to frequent these mushroom finance or leasing companies in the hope of meeting their urgent financial needs and find themselves ensnared in a debt or death trap hardly able to escape.
Sandwiched between these two events was the police attack on Front-line Socialist Party (FSP) members, who were carrying out a peaceful protest in the vicinity of the US Embassy in Kollupitiya, and later at the Lipton’s Circus, against the senseless murder of 46-year-old African-American George Floyd at Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The manner in which our police personal manhandled the protesters among whom were several women was deplorable. More than 50 protesters including party leaders were arrested on charges of violating quarantine laws, even though the FSP claimed they were staging the protest all the while complying with government-prescribed health guidelines.
Several civil rights organisations and political parties condemned the high-handed manner in which the police personnel descended on the group of peaceful protesters with scant regard to health guidelines and quarantine laws.
This kind of action only tarnishes the image of the police with the often mouthed platitude of a ‘people-friendly police service’ going up in smoke.