Political landscape feels Corona heat | Daily News


Political landscape feels Corona heat

Voters after casting their franchise. Picture by Sulochana Gamage
Voters after casting their franchise. Picture by Sulochana Gamage

The country’s defensive measures against the new Coronavirus ‘COVID-19’ dominated the news cycle over the week, overshadowing the Parliamentary Election.

The country virtually came to a standstill as social institutions were closed one after the other to restrict social engagements as far as possible. The Government together with the health authorities, Security Forces and all other stakeholders put in place a host of proactive measures with immediate effect for a period of two weeks.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa over the weekend requested the people to unite as one nation to face the crisis situation, also reminding that the nation had successfully overcome more serious challenges collectively. As panic gripped the country with the increase of Coronavirus confirmed cases in Sri Lanka, they assured that the Government was doing its best to control the situation, and that there was no need to fear a scarcity of food or medicine.

Campaign sans rallies

While the political circles were abuzz with speculation of a possible postponement of the election, National Election Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya observed that there was no such immediate plan, which was later corroborated by Commissioner General Saman Sri Rathnayake.

“Let’s coordinate with the health authorities to prevent the spread of the disease. Some political parties have already told us that they would not organise election rallies until March 26 taking cognizance of the current situation,” Deshapriya told the media.

The Election Commission is on a tight schedule in view of the Sinhala and Tamil New Year holidays, and on top of that the extra health and safety precautions, which have been required in the wake of global Coronavirus outbreak, have further complicated its task.

Commissioner-General Rathnayake told the Daily News that the commission would proceed as per the Gazette notification to receive nominations, and would reconsider holding the election if there were compelling reasons.

Less affluent candidates in quandary

Under the current circumstances, the political parties of all hues will require to redesign their election campaigns to lessen the mass gatherings as much as possible. A pertinent question is whether it will affect a level playing field.

Public rallies, pocket meetings and house to house visits are conventional campaigning methods at grassroots level. If candidates are to refrain from using these methods, they will have to rely more on electronic and social media to get their message across to the voters.

Now that all the media are giving prominence to latest Coronavirus related developments, the airtime available for political speeches would be limited further. In the face of this development, National People’s Power (NPP) Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake expressed his doubts that the local media, given the political allegiances of their owners, would adhere to fair play and balanced reporting. This was an issue, which came to surface at the last Presidential Election too.

Another valid point he made was that campaigning in both the above platforms depends on the spending power. “Certain television channels charge Rs 750,000 to run a 15 second advertisement once in between their news bulletin. Visibility in social media also depends on money. The political parties are given time from March 19-April 22 for campaigning and now we have to forego a considerable number of days of that period because of health concerns. We are not irresponsible as to disregard the health advices. All this has posed a challenge to us,” he pointed out.

New political order

Meanwhile, the one-week period given to hand over nominations ends tomorrow and the period given for independent groups to place deposits ends today. As at Tuesday morning, 150 independent groups have placed their deposits, while eight political parties have submitted their nominations in district wise to contest the April 25 polls.

All parties were busy last week with last minute preparations of the Nomination Lists. Naturally, there was high competition for nominations from the ‘Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna’ (SLPP) and the ‘Samagi Jana Balavegaya’ (SJB), two new parties which dominate the country’s political landscape as at now. Political analysts observe that this election could be a watershed event in Sri Lankan political history, which would signal the emergence of a new political order replacing the two traditional political powerhouses, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP).

The potent SLPP led by Prime Minister Rajapaksa is now well-established under the ‘flower bud’ (Pohottuwa) symbol at grassroots level relegating the SLFP to the fringes of political discourse, while the SJB formed by a break-away group led by former Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa is certain to make inroads into the UNP’s vote base.

SLFP’s new turn

The way former President Maithripala Sirisena squeezed through the crowd to get to the front at the SLPP nomination signing ceremony, as captured on camera, was quite symbolic of his party’s struggle to survive in the SLPP despite brewing hostilities.

The SLFP Central Committee, which met last week, sought a Memorandum of Understanding with the SLPP to agree on its share and future affairs. In addition, it has now decided to contest separately under its traditional symbol of the ‘hand’, for the Nuwara Eliya, Kalutara, Jaffna and Vanni districts at the General Election.

This could well be a move to make the SLFP’s presence known in the next Parliament. For example, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) led by Rauff Hakeem contested under the UNP ticket in many districts in 2015 General Election, but contested separately in two electoral districts and won one Parliamentary seat. Thus, it was recognized a separate party. Likewise, the SLFP will be recognized as a separate party in Parliament, if it succeeds to get Members elected to Parliament from the above mentioned four districts.

Recognition as a separate party leads to more privileges in Parliament. It will qualify the SLFP to have a stake in the Party Leaders’ Meetings and get separate time slots at Parliamentary debates. Here, one may also remember as to how the Joint Opposition (JO) agitated in the last Parliament seeking recognition as a separate party, and how the request was turned down as it had not contested the election separately. All JO members had actually contested from the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA).

UNP crisis

The chasm between the two factions of the UNP has run so deep that all efforts to patch up the differences on the verge of the election have come to a breaking point.

The two factions were making nomination lists separately to contest the election under the symbols of ‘elephant’ and ‘telephone’.

Wickremesinghe loyalist former MP Vajira Abeywardena warned at a media conference that the UNP dissidents would lose all their positions as well as party membership once they sign the nomination from another party. Despite that, those aligned with the Sajith’s camp were defiant that no disciplinary action could be taken as the SJB was formed with the blessings of the UNP Working Committee.

Interestingly, former Minister and MP Ravi Karunanayake reiterated his solidarity with UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe expressing his intent to “shoulder the UNP’s campaign at the General Election”. The former MP, who went missing for eight days when the Court issued an arrest warrant against him, appeared almost out of thin air at the Fort Magistrate’s Court on Friday as per an order of the Appeal Court when his writ petition was taken up.

Needless to say, with friends like these there is no need for enemies for the Wickremesinghe camp. What is left to see is how matured would the response of the electorate be to such candidates who have joined the fray from any party.

The coming days will be crucial as the Government and health authorities shift into high gear to tackle the Coronavirus threat, perhaps the most challenging global issue that has impacted Sri Lanka in recent times. One silver lining is that all political leaders and parties have pledged to support these efforts even in the midst of the polls campaigns.


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