Confusion reigns these days over many important matters ranging from using face masks to Constitutional provision. The very instruction to stay home owing to the COVID-19 threat goes against the instruction to wear face masks when one comes out from home, as nobody or very few had face masks in their possession when the government first imposed curfew on March 20, in order to enforce social distancing or physical distancing. In other words many people were able to adhere to the second (face mask) instruction by breaching the first (stay home).
Again police wanted people to wear face masks when they come out from their home while during the same time the health authorities had claimed that there is no such a threat that people should wear face masks.
The government on April 25 announced a number system for the people to go out for essential needs once the curfew is lifted, based on the last digit of their national identity cards. However, On Sunday the government again announced that the system is implemented in areas where curfew is imposed and not in areas where curfew is lifted.
Meanwhile, the country seems to be facing a Constitutional crisis, as several Articles of the Constitution seem to be overlooked or apparently impractical. For instance, the Constitution says under its Article 70 “A Proclamation dissolving Parliament shall fix a date or dates for the election of Members of Parliament, and shall summon the new Parliament to meet on a date not later than three months after the date of such Proclamation.”
Such a proclamation this time was made by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on March 2 and accordingly the new Parliament had to be summoned before June 2. Yet, the National Election Commission (NEC) has fixed June 20 for the Parliament election, making this Constitutional Article impractical.
To overcome this situation the Opposition parties insist on re-summoning of the dissolved Parliament under the provisions of the same Article which says “ If at any time after the dissolution of Parliament, the President is satisfied that an emergency has arisen of such a nature that an earlier meeting of Parliament is necessary, he may by Proclamation summon the Parliament which has been dissolved to meet on a date not less than three days from the date of such Proclamation and such Parliament shall stand dissolved upon the termination of the emergency or the conclusion of the General Election, whichever is earlier.”
If the current coronavirus threat could be deemed to be an emergency spelled out by the Constitution, and if the Parliament is reconvened under this Article, who or what would decide whether the said emergency has terminated and on what grounds? Since the government declared holidays for the schools once the second COVID-19 patient was identified on March 12, it has to consider the situation as an emergency so long as COVID-19 patients are identified or being treated at hospitals.
Former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had informed the government through a statement far back as on March 20 that since the Parliament had passed a Vote On Account to spending during the period between January 1 and April 30 this year, the President has no authority to obtain resources from the Consolidated Fund After
However, the ruling party contends that the President can authorise issuance of funds from the Consolidated Fund under Article 150 of the Constitution which says “Where the President dissolves Parliament before the Appropriation Bill for the financial year has passed into law, he may, unless Parliament shall have already made provision, authorise the issue from the Consolidated Fund and the expenditure of such sums as he may consider necessary for the public services until the expiry of a period of three months from the date on which the new Parliament is summoned to meet.”
The former Prime Minister also had cited this Article but seems to be of the view that the President can authorise to issue funds only for the period “until the expiry of a period of three months from the date on which the new Parliament is summoned to meet.” Former Chairman of the COPE and former JVP Parliamentarian Sunil Handunnetti also during a televised debate cited this Article and argued that the President can issue funds from the Consolidated Fund only for three months from the date of the first meeting of the new parliament.
On top of all these the NEC has now to decide on its own whether the nominations entertained on March 17, 18, and 19 which were holidays were valid. These issues must be sorted out as the people must be confident that the government is protecting the Rule of Law which is the foundation of a civilised society. Only the Supreme Court can give a final ruling on these matters. It is not clear whether the ruling of the FR petition filed by former Colombo Municipal Councilor Charitha Maithri Gunarathna on the above said election issue would cover all these matters.