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Govt, opposition heading for Constitutional showdown

Amid COVID-19 outbreak

23 April 2020 12:08 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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Resumption of economic activities while containing the outbreak of the disease is a Herculean task for the government, though to balance both is not that easy

 

The announcement of a new polling day for the parliamentary elections has now intensified the political debate between the government and the opposition regarding the call for the reconvening of Parliament. 


The Election Commission has the authority in terms of the Parliamentary Election Act No 1 of 1981 to postpone the day of polling in case of an emergency situation and announce a fresh date to 
take polling. 


Section 24(3) of the Act says , “ Where due to any emergency or unforeseen circumstances the poll for the election in any electoral district cannot be taken on the day specified in the notice relating to the election published under subsection (1), the Commissioner may, by Order published in the Gazette, appoint another day for the taking of such poll, and such other day shall not be earlier than the fourteenth day after the publication of the Order in the Gazette”


The Commission, after much deliberation with the health officials and the security authorities, fixed June 20 as the day of polling  instead of April 25 as the date announced in the original proclamation issued by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in dissolving Parliament with effect from March 2.


 The Commission selected June 20 as it wanted a date as late as possible. Likewise, the district secretaries or the returning officers, at the meeting with the Commission members on Monday, stressed that they needed at least eight weeks to prepare for the elections, with much paper work to be done.

 

As for the conduct of elections, the Government should, however, be careful. In easing curfew restrictions, it should be done with measured steps


 The ruling side is, particularly, interested in having the elections concluded as early as possible. As such, it is interested in restoring normalcy in the country as soon as possible, so that electioneering can take place smoothly. Yet, it is not what is sought after by the parties in the opposition - Samagi Jana Balawegaya(SJB), the United National Party(UNP), the National People’s Power (NPP)- which is an alliance led by the JVP- and the Tamil National Alliance. For them, the election is not something welcoming primarily due to the fear that their present positioning in Parliament would get weakened. But, it is not a valid excuse for them in agitating for the further postponing of elections. The elections cannot be delayed merely because it is advantageous for one party and disadvantageous for another. Instead, the opposition, whatever its political motives are, has some solid reasoning in putting forth their argument for not conducting polls now; that is that the country’s situation is not conducive for the elections to be conducted any time soon. 


The health authorities, backed by the security forces and the law enforcement authority, had controlled the spread of COVID-19. However, the sudden spike of cases from Bandaranaike Mawatha in Colombo, stood in the way of the government in planning out its exit strategy from a virtual shutdown. It compelled the government to shelve its step to loosen restrictions for public movement and business activities in Colombo for a week. Also, the sudden rise , with 33 cases reported on a single day, raised uncertainty about the future trend of the spread of the virus. Nobody can rule out the possibility of the further increase of the number of patients on any future date. Then, it makes sense that the government should step up vigilance and not take things for granted at any cost.

 


Common objective
This uncertainty provides ample ground for the opposition parties in building their argument seeking the withholding of the elections for an indefinite period. In the backdrop of polling being fixed for June 20, almost all the parties in the opposition have renewed their call for the reconvening of Parliament which now remains at a standstill. The opposition consists of four main political formations: SJB, NPP, UNP and TNA. Nevertheless, they operate on a common objective at this juncture as far as the reconvening of Parliament is concerned. On many an occasion in the past, they have acted and cooperated with each other on similar interests despite appearing under different political banners. 

 

Also, the sudden rise , with 33 cases reported on a single day, raised uncertainty about the future trend of the spread of the virus


Now the renewed call for summing the dissolved Parliament, to achieve the same objective, has set the stage for a fresh debate which, if proceeded with, will distract public attention or focus from the fight on COVID- 19.
Former TNA MP M.A. Sumanthiran has vowed to petition the Supreme Court seeking a ruling to summon the House. Likewise, former UNP MP SJB Kandy district candidate Lakshman Kiriella  said the presidential proclamation dissolving Parliament is now invalid, and therefore Speaker Karu Jayasuriya can summon Parliament any time. 


 No matter what, the President has firmed up his position that he will not reconvene the dissolved Parliament. He spelled out his stand when he addressed the nation on television on Monday. In this manner, the government and the opposition are heading for a showdown on a constitutional conundrum. It will distract public attention from the country’s efforts on the fight against the spread of COVID- 19. What is feared is whether it will hamper the moves which are currently underway to prevent the community spread of the disease. 


The opposition, obviously, has reasons to be happy about  Parliament being reconvened. Today, it has been denied of all possible avenues to put forth its viewpoints against the government through the media. Parliament, if reconvened, would afford that opportunity. The government is well aware of it. Also, the government believes that the President has sufficient powers to respond to the present disaster as the executive Head of State. The President is not ready as a result to yield to the pressure by the opposition under any circumstances.


As for the conduct of elections, the Government should, however, be careful. In easing curfew restrictions, it should be done with measured steps to make sure that a second outbreak of the disease does not take place. It is true that a prolonged shutdown is practically impossible despite risks involved otherwise. Numerous governments in the world have started easing their disease control restrictions for the gradual opening up of their countries for economic activities. Germany, Norway and Denmark are some of them. But, Sri Lanka cannot afford to experience a second outbreak of the disease. Resumption of economic activities while containing the outbreak of the disease is a Herculean task for the government, though to balance both is not that easy.


As things stand at the moment, the health authorities are not in favour of electioneering in the way done under normal circumstances. Electioneering has to start at least five weeks before the day of polling. It means the political parties in the fray should be able to launch their propaganda activities at least by May 10 or 15. If the situation is fully under control by that time, the elections can be concluded on June 20. Otherwise , the Election Commission will have to take stock of things by by the middle of May and decide on whether polling would be taken on June 20 or deferred to a later date. It will be good news for the government if polling takes place as scheduled. Yet, it is good news for the opposition if it is 
delayed further.

 

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