Reimagining An Election In the Time Of COVID-19: The Role Of New Parliament | Daily News


 

Reimagining An Election In the Time Of COVID-19: The Role Of New Parliament

The elections in South Korea
The elections in South Korea

The dissolution of Sri Lanka’s Parliament and the date of the General Election are now before the Judiciary.

When President Gotabaya Rajapaksa dissolved Parliament on the night of March 02, no one foresaw the emergence of a virus that would cripple every aspect of our health, lives and economy. At the time, the country was only focused on electing a new Parliament on April 24 to form a stable Government that will hold strong the next five years.

Little did anyone know that the local outbreak of COVID-19 would disrupt the election timeline to the degree the country is now on the brink of an unwelcome legal conundrum as a result of having to postpone the election beyond the acceptable period.

We are faced every day with a looming question: how do we recover, as a nation, from the dire straits we have found ourselves in?

An enfeebled local economy and an unstable global economy must force us to adopt more flexible strategies for managing the compounding crisis.

A key step towards resolving this, however, is holding the next Parliamentary election, because timeline notwithstanding, it is the new Parliament that must be entrusted with devising policies and passing legislation that will allow Sri Lanka to recover from the fallout of the COVID-19 outbreak. This includes formulating and implementing radical and far-reaching reforms that will bolster the export sector, the manufacturing industry, and agriculture.

This COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed the old and accepted ways of running a country’s economy and has introduced a new world order that requires more agility and flexibility in response. Traditional markets have suffered heavily due to the impact of the pandemic and countries will have to explore fresh opportunities to strengthen their economies.

A country like Sri Lanka, for instance, that relied heavily on its apparel sector had to channel its resources to manufacturing personal protective equipment (PPEs) for frontline health workers. In a similar manner, new markets will have to be explored and new strategies devised.

The agriculture sector will require massive investments in food processing and storage facilities to improve overall productivity. Our agriculture sector is resilient to external shocks, but the sector’s contribution to the GDP stands at a below-par 7%.

We are also facing the prospect of a staggering number of job losses and pay-cuts across many sectors. The tourism sector, in particular, the third-highest foreign exchange generator in the country, has already suffered a severe blow. Nearly a million people are dependent on the sector and it is estimated it will take at least another year to recover. The exact number of job losses in the apparel sector is unclear, but in other sectors, freelancers and informal workers are struggling to make ends meet.

We believe Sri Lanka requires new, out-of-the-box thinking to emerge strongly from the crisis and for that, all political parties must work together, with some mutual understanding of the task we are undertaking, for the next 12 months at least. Parliament must work as a consensus-building body rather than a boxing ring and the Government and the Opposition must put aside petty differences and accept the need for constructive dialogue on a cohesive economic response to the crisis.

We need a stable Government and a responsible opposition that works with a broader vision and a national agenda to facilitate this transformation. The current caretaker Government, which only remains in force until the next Parliamentary election, is not in a position to embark on such wide-ranging reforms. Even if the President decides to reconvene the old Parliament, its term will expire on September 01, necessitating a new election. This underscores the gigantic task that lies ahead of the new Parliament.

It goes without saying that we must conduct the Parliamentary election in a free and fair manner allowing all citizens right to exercise their franchise to select the most suitable representatives to the job. All stakeholders, including the Elections Commission, have a responsibility to ensure an environment conducive to conducting a fair and just election is created and maintained. All political parties, civil organization and citizen groups should build a general consensus on the way forward and ensure that the true public will is reflected in the final result of the Parliamentary election.

It is also important to conduct the election in a manner that does not pose a threat to public health although there has been precedence for this — South Korea conducted an election in the midst of the pandemic after all — their electoral system and practices cannot be adopted here due to disparities in finances and logistics. Sri Lankan political parties are also accustomed to massive public rallies and direct interactions with the electorate, but this may not be possible under the current circumstances.

The effective use of mainstream and digital media will be the primary tool for election campaigners this time and the need for renewed vigilance that campaigning is free and fair arises: the Elections Commission will have to ensure that there is a level playing field for all main political parties.

During the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak in Sri Lanka, we have also, sadly, witnessed the manner in which latent, simmering racism and hate speech found expression in the media space. Instead of a collective public response to the pandemic, there were organized attempts by some to create divisions along racial lines and whip up communal sentiments. This will continue to be a major challenge, not just at the upcoming Parliamentary election, but going forward, given the polarization of our electorate. All leading political parties, therefore, must take every possible measure to ensure their affiliated groups do not resort to racism to attract voters at the upcoming election.

The new Parliament will be the foundation on which Sri Lanka will rebuild itself after the global pandemic. We need lawmakers who understand the pivotal role they have to play in shaping a COVID-19 future and we need to continue to create the space to foster, encourage and vote in these leaders.

NextGenSL (NextGenSL is Sri Lanka’s first-ever cross-party youth political collective. Milinda Rajapaksha and Rasika Jayakody are the co-conveners of the group)


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