Covid 19 the decisive factor | Daily News


Covid 19 the decisive factor

All eyes on the Supreme Court as legal battle begins over elections date
All eyes on the Supreme Court as legal battle begins over elections date

Sri Lanka is slowly limping back to near normalcy as a prolonged curfew imposed in March is being lifted in stages and offices re-open, leading to speculation that a return to a level of functioning that allows the conduct of a General Election in the coming months could yet be possible.  

Health authorities believe that the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic which crippled countries throughout the world and killed thousands in nations such as the United States, Britain, Italy and Spain is over in Sri Lanka and that the ‘peak’ period of the disease may have passed by now.

At the time of writing, 884 cases had been reported countrywide, leading to nine deaths. The increase from 200 cases to 700 cases was fairly rapid and occurred within 20 days, as compared to the nineteen days it took for the count to rise from 100 cases to 200 cases. This rate has slowed since then.

This decline is despite a sharp increase in the number of tests conducted to detect the disease. Previously, only a few dozen tests were done daily. Now, over a thousand tests are carried out every day. A total of over 38,000 tests have been carried out in Sri Lanka since the outbreak began.

Sri Lanka’s efforts to contain the pandemic despite having limited resources at its disposal has won praise from the World Health Organisation (WHO). “Sri Lanka is on the right track to contain the epidemic through the increased tracking, testing, isolation, and treatment strategy,” the WHO said.

However, health authorities are still wary. That is because many countries which successfully contained the pandemic in its early stages experienced a ‘second wave’ of infections when restrictions were eased after a period of time. Singapore and more recently China have seen this trend.

This would be of particular concern as the curfew, imposed in March, is now being lifted in stages. The Colombo district, under a tight ‘lockdown’ was allowed to re-open cautiously on Monday, albeit under strict conditions. Authorities are monitoring the situation closely, vis-à-vis the pandemic.

Minister of Education Dullas Alahapperuma announced this week that schools - which also had a projected May re-opening- would be considered for reopening only in June. Any such decision would be based on the recommendation of health authorities, Alahapperuma said. 

The Government is hoping to relax most restrictions and aim for near normalcy- with social distancing measures in place- by early June. This is in keeping with a worldwide trend, where countries are being re-opened because indefinite lockdowns have caused significant economic damage.

Much will depend however on the state of the pandemic after the restrictions are lifted. This will only become apparent about a fortnight after the easing of the curfew. That is when the so-called ‘second wave’, if there is one, will begin to appear and manifest as illness in those infected with the virus.

If these developments preoccupied the health sector, there was also activity in political circles with regard to the now overdue General Election, originally scheduled for April 25 and since then postponed until June 20 by the Elections Commission due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Commission has made no formal announcement regarding whether the election will be held on June 20 at the time of writing. It is unlikely because previously Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya had stated that it required at least five weeks of ‘normalcy’ to prepare for the poll.

The delay in an announcement from the Commission may also be because of the several cases filed in the Supreme Court this week, challenging the conduct of the General Election on several grounds. These Fundamental Rights applications have been fixed for support on May 18 and 19.

Among those filing petitions were former United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) minister and former Kalutara District Parliamentarian Kumara Welgama and Jathika Hela Urumaya leader Patali Champika Ranawaka. Both served as Cabinet ministers during the Presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa.  

These applications challenge two main issues: the dissolution of Parliament on March 2 by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the subsequent postponement of the date of the election from April 25 to June 20 by the Elections Commission due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The dissolution of Parliament on March 2 is challenged on the grounds that the meeting of the new Parliament will not occur by June 2, the three-month time period provided for in the Constitution. As such, the dissolution is rendered null and void, many petitioners have argued.

The decision of the Elections Commission to postpone the election from April 25 to June 20 has been challenged on the grounds that fixing the date of the election was the prerogative of the President and not of the Commission. The Commission cannot take over this function, the petitioners have argued.

Interestingly, when the cases were considered in the Supreme Court on Monday, Attorney General Dappula De Livera through his counsel Indika Devamuni De Silva informed court that he was not in a position to represent the Elections Commission which had been cited as a respondent.

All eyes will again be on the Supreme Court, as it was during the Constitutional crisis in December 2018. That was when then President Maithripala Sirisena sacked then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister and dissolved Parliament.

Ironically, on that occasion too, the question before the Court was whether the dissolution of Parliament was constitutional. Then, the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional, leading to a return of the status quo. A similar question- albeit in different circumstances- is before the Court now.

While these legal battles were being planned and fought in the halls of Hulftsdorp, there had been some speculation that the increased time available to the United National Party (UNP) and the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) because of the postponement of the polls could lead to a rapprochement.

There were desperate attempts until the eleventh hour before the close of nominations on March 19 to bring the two parties together, in the hope that they would face the General Election as a single entity but that did not eventuate, mostly because of the intransigence of UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Some of these attempts at reconciliation did continue during the ‘lockdown’ but it now appears that they have not been fruitful. On the contrary, the relationship between the two parties appears to have deteriorated further, with the UNP now challenging the nominations filed by the SJB.

A petition has been filed in the Supreme Court seeking a writ order on the Elections Commission to reject the nomination papers submitted by the SJB for the General Election. The petition was filed by Oshala Herath, a UNP candidate for the Colombo District.

The petitioner notes that the party which has handed over nominations as the SJB is based on the ‘Ape Jathika Peramuna’ party. He also contends that that the appointment of Ranjith Madduma Bandara as the General Secretary of the SJB was not approved by the Working Committee of the UNP.

Therefore, the nomination papers submitted with the signature of Ranjith Madduma Bandara as the General Secretary of SJB are illegal, the petitioner claims and appeals for a ruling that the Elections Commission nullifies relevant nomination papers of the SJB.

It is unthinkable that a candidate on a UNP nomination list for the Colombo District would proceed with such an application before the Supreme Court without the blessings of the party hierarchy. This is why it is an indication that relations between the two parties have reached a point of no return. 

This is a significant development because the upcoming General Election is not one where the balance of power is expected to change. With President Gotabaya Rajapaksa still in the first few months of his Presidency, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) is widely expected to emerge victorious.

While the pandemic caused by the coronavirus has crippled the nation, the Government’s handling of the crisis has earned widespread praise from different quarters. Comparisons have been made with the previous Government’s approach to the attacks carried out on Easter Sunday last year.

This has projected the Government in a positive light and will improve its prospects at a general election, if it is held in the near future. It is also no secret that the focus of the government is not merely on winning the election, but also on securing a two-thirds majority in the next Parliament.

This is why a divided Opposition would help the government’s cause immensely in trying to achieve that objective. It is also generally acknowledged that the SJB commands the support of more former Parliamentarians than the UNP, so any weakening of the SJB will be advantageous to the Government.

There is no doubt that the ruling SLPP will be watching developments between the UNP and the SJB closely as it gets its own campaign ready for the election. That is because it feels that repealing the 19th Amendment is imperative, for which it requires a two-thirds majority.

It is not often that a health crisis has an impact on political events but that is what is occurring in Sri Lanka. Ultimately, it will be the coronavirus pandemic that will determine political events in the near future- despite the best laid plans of political parties, both in Government and in the Opposition.   

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