Surmounting political challenges | Daily News


Surmounting political challenges

Former MPs' Meeting
Former MPs' Meeting

While COVID-19 was fast invading the narrow space left to have the Parliamentary Poll on June 20, a cold war has erupted between the Government and the Opposition over re-summoning the old Parliament.

Many mainstream parties have been trotting out slogans of putting aside political divisions in the face of the common enemy ‘COVID-19’, but their actions and intransigent positions have been a far cry from what they preach. With an election round the corner, it is now increasingly clear that some parties have no genuine interest in closing ranks. Instead they seem to be vying with each other to score more political marks.

Former MPs’ meeting

The meeting convened by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa at Temple Trees on Monday to discuss the COVID-19 situation and path forward was attended by about 200 former MPs, sans those representing the United National Party (UNP), ‘Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna’ (JVP), and the new addition ‘Samagi Jana Balawegaya’ (SJB). The UNP, changing its original stand to participate in the meeting, made a last minute ‘U turn’ to boycott it.

Deviating from the positions of other opposition parties, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) led by R Sampanthan not only attended the meeting but also made active contributions to it. The TNA handed over a two-page letter to PM Rajapaksa during the meeting stressing their concerns with a request to gather Parliament again, observing that the meeting was “not a substitute for convening Parliament”.

It was learnt that the TNA members met the PM later in the day again at the latter’s residence at Wijerama Mawatha in Colombo for another discussion. As the TNA members told the media, the intention of the meeting was “to discuss the content of their letter in detail”. However, political observers viewed these unexpected developments with keen interest.

At the former MPs’ meeting, Health Services Director General Dr Anil Jasinghe and the Intelligence Officials explained to the gathering at length the status of COVID-19 control measures in the country.

The PM also used the forum to respond to the Opposition’s claims over lack of transparency in handing the foreign aid received to the country. Through Finance Ministry Secretary S R Attygalle, it was explained to the assembly that the country has so far not received monetary aid from overseas, but only an agreement signed with the World Bank to receive financial assistance to the tune of US$ 128 million. He added that the country has however received various goods, items and equipment as non-cash foreign aid.

Opposition’s stance

It could be seen that the opposition parties, UNP, JVP, and SJB have been looking for chinks in the Government’s relief mechanism and efforts to contain the pandemic. Given the magnitude of crisis and the challenges which seem to be insurmountable, no Government could be expected to handle the situation perfectly. Many Governments in the Western world which boast of advanced economies and technologies have performed far worse than ours and have crumbled in the face of COVID-19. In contrast, the people have been able to count on the machinery of government in Sri Lanka as it has performed remarkably well.

Another frequent complaint coming from the Opposition is that the Government did not take their views into account nor has it been serious in engaging with them throughout this period to get their contributions to fight COVID-19. One reason cited by the SJB led by Sajith Premadasa to boycott the PM’s meeting at Temple Trees was that the Government had been “rude” and “indifferent” in its response to the Opposition’s collective undertaking to support the Government to face the crisis situation.

Different arguments

The country’s political landscape was filled with hair splitting arguments by both sides of political divide on the matters arising from the postponement of the Election distracting from the country’s focus on combatting COVID-19.

Last week, Secretary to the President Dr P.B. Jayasundera, on the direction of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, sent two missives to the Opposition, the first to former Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa in reply to the collective letter sent to him asking to re-assemble the old Parliament, and the second to former Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera in reply to matters of financial control in the absence of a budget.

In both the letters, the President had been crystal clear that he would not cave in to the pressure to reconvene the old Parliament.

In the meantime, the matters of Election and Parliament have now entered the Court rooms, as the first Fundamental Rights petition has been filed seeking an order quashing the Gazette Extraordinary which re-fixed the General Election for June 20. The petitioner argues that this date was unconstitutional and that a free and fair election could not be held on that date due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The petitioner, Attorney-at-Law Charitha Gunaratne, a former Colombo Municipal Councillor is the son of Maithri Gunaratne, a former Governor and supporter of Sajith Premadasa’s camp. He is contesting the upcoming Parliamentary Election under the SJB ticket as a Gampaha district candidate.

Several more political activists and members affiliated to opposition parties have also expressed their readiness to go before the Supreme Court seeking an order to re-summon Parliament. Accordingly, more petitions are likely to follow suit the first. However, a collision course of the Executive, Legislature and the Judiciary is the last thing the people in the country want at this juncture.

More hurdles for NEC

Having successfully conducted many elections under trying circumstances in the past, National Election Commission (NEC) Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya admits that this is the first time that a national election has been blighted by a virus. The election activities have been crippled to a large extent due to the restrictions on movement and other safety measures in place to control the spread of COVID-19.

The NEC following a meeting between its three Members met with the representatives of political parties over the weekend. The Commission was not in a hurry to reach a final decision on the date of the Election during the discussion which lasted for about two hours. However, pushing back the previously announced election time table, the Commission did not issue the preferential vote numbers to the candidates this week.

If the Commission is setting a new date for the Election, that date will have to be after July 4 (two weeks after June 20) according to Election Law. As reported, the Commission was also looking at the possibilities of holding the Parliamentary Polls on staggered basis. The country has previously held Provincial Councils polls in this manner, though not a Parliamentary Poll.

“The Commission said that it would arrive at a decision within two weeks based on the situation in the country,” former State Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage who attended the meeting representing the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) said.

SJB General Secretary Ranjith Madduma Bandara said the majority of the parties were of the view that the Election should not be held until COVID-19 is satisfactorily contained.

JVP Leader Anura Dissanayake said it was brought to notice at the meeting that the validity of the nominations received on March 17, 18 and 19 was in question as the Public Administration and Home Affairs Ministry had declared those three days as special public holidays.

The Commission sought the Attorney General’s opinion on this matter and the AG has replied in short stating that, “It is observed that nominations have already been accepted in respect of the Parliamentary Election 2020. In this context, it is further observed that you have also taken consequential steps for the conduct of such elections. Therefore, in the circumstances, you are required to follow the procedure established by law for the conduct of the Parliamentary Election”.

While it was not a very direct or explicit answer that can be easily construed at first reading, the Election Commission believes that it means that the AG has given the green light to go ahead with the Election based on the steps the Commission has already taken. All eyes are now on the NEC as it takes further steps towards an election.


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