The talking point in political and civil society circles these days is on the viability of holding the parliamentary election in the midst of the COVID19 crisis engulfing Sri Lanka. The debate has intensified after the Election Commission (EC) had postponed the election to June 20. Many are of the view that elections should not be held until the pandemic has been eradicated from our soil and an ‘All is Clear’ certificate has been issued by the health authorities.
Incidentally, Parliament was dissolved on a presidential proclamation issued on March 2 this year with nominations to be filed between March 12 and 19. The election was fixed for April 25 with the Parliament and its 225 newly-elected members scheduled to meet for the first time on May 14. The tenure of the current Parliament was to end in September 2020 but was dissolved four-and-a-half years into its term of office by the powers vested in the President under the provisions of the Constitution. But at a news conference on March 15, EC Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya announced that the election could not be held on April 25 as earlier envisaged in view of the COVID19 pandemic and the various measures adopted to curb its spread making it extremely difficult to organise the logistics involved in holding such an election. The delay in announcing the date of the election had resulted in both President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa pointing out that it was incumbent on the EC to fix a new date for the general election based on the fact that it was the Commission which had on March 21 announced the postponement of the general election based on the crisis situation faced by the country. Amid growing pressure from the government in favour of elections and opposition political parties urging that they be postponed indefinitely, the three-member EC, after a lengthy meeting on April 20 decided that the parliamentary election be held on June 20.
With the new date bypassing the mandatory date for the new Parliament to meet, which was on or before June 2, it has not surprisingly given rise to legal and political arguments and counter arguments. Some say the presidential proclamation dissolving Parliament has been invalidated now that Parliament will in no way be able to meet within three months of it being dissolved and that constitutionally the country could not be administered without a Parliament for more than the specified three months, and that there is no other option but to re-convene Parliament so as to avoid a constitutional crisis. Some others say the extraordinary situation being faced by the country requires extraordinary measures to overcome the impasse, and that it is a matter best left to the President to resolve the stalemate.
In a recent interview with Daily Mirror, Tamil National Alliance (TNA) member and President’s Counsel M.A. Sumanthiran pointed out that the deadlock could be resolved in one of three ways. Firstly, the President could recognise the legal position and publish a fresh proclamation rescinding the one he made earlier. Secondly, someone could go to court, like in 2019, and the Court upholds the legal position. Thirdly, the Speaker using the powers vested in him under the parliamentary Standing Orders decides to re-convene Parliament. He said it was up to them to decide, but these were the options available.
Be that as it may, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in an interview telecast live over electronic media last week said under no circumstances would he re-convene the previous Parliament.
In such a scenario, with speculation rife on re-convening or not re-convening Parliament, holding or not holding the general election at a turbulent time such as this with the number of COVID19-infected patients having risen to 622 as of last morning with the possibility of these numbers rising further, former Speaker Karu Jayasuriya clarified his stance on these contentious issues. He said he had no intention of reconvening Parliament unilaterally.
“While fighting COVID19, Sri Lanka does not need another constitutional crisis. Therefore, the rumours that I will reconvene Parliament unilaterally are false. All efforts must be taken by the Executive to avert a crisis. In a dispute, I am bound to uphold the judiciary’s decision,” he tweeted.
Meanwhile, seven opposition party leaders, in a letter to the President urged him to reconvene Parliament during this unprecedented crisis, which was showing no signs of abating. They assured him of fulfilling their obligations in the spirit of responsible cooperation to successfully overcome the COVID19 challenge.
Whatever the final decision might be, we hope it would not be one that is disfigured or taineted by personal or political agendas, but be one taken for the greater good of all Sri Lankans.