A crucial moment | Daily News


A crucial moment

This week saw the slow easing of restrictions imposed due to the Coronavirus in Sri Lanka while the country awaits the determination of several Fundamental Rights petitions in the Supreme Court regarding the conduct of the General Election which has been tentatively scheduled for June 20.

The June 20 election date is very likely not to eventuate. However, the Elections Commission has deferred announcing a new election date for two reasons: the Covid-19 pandemic is yet to settle and any decision regarding election dates will now be subject to a Supreme Court ruling.

The Covid-19 pandemic itself has been relentless, though manageable. The total number of cases exceeded the 1,000 mark this week, with 1,021 cases being recorded by Tuesday night. A worrying factor was the detection of a cluster of 28 more cases in the Sri Lanka Navy.

Health experts say that Sri Lanka has done well in containing the pandemic with deaths and the number of infected persons not being recorded on a mass scale that would have overwhelmed health services, as it happened in countries such as the United States, United Kingdom and Italy.

However, they are concerned that the pandemic has shown no signs of abating yet, with a steady stream of new cases being recorded daily. The increase from 800 to 900 cases and the rise from 900 to 1,000 cases both occurred within the short span of five days, confirming this continuing trend.

This has the potential to escalate, especially as restrictions are slowly eased and the workforce return to their jobs. There will be a tendency among the public to let their guard down over the next few weeks and that is when the pandemic could assume dangerous proportions, epidemiologists say.

Striking the right balance

The Government has the difficult task of striking the right balance between ensuring the health and safety of the public while at the same time restoring the country’s economic activity as soon as possible. The latter is essential to sustain the country’s economy and the livelihoods of people.

This is why the Coronavirus restrictions are slowly being eased. It may seem paradoxical but some sectors are slowly but surely returning to a modest level of functioning amidst a curfew that is being reviewed on a daily basis and being imposed in selected areas depending on their level of risk.

Against these developments in the Covid-19 pandemic, this week also saw two issues dominate the headlines: the petitions in the Supreme Court against plans to conduct the General Election on June 20 and the commemoration of the eleventh anniversary of the end of the Eelam War in 2009.

Seven parties including Attorney-at-Law Charitha Guneratne, Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), Ranjith Madduma Bandara of the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), and former MPs Kumara Welgama and Champika Ranawaka have filed the petitions.

At the time of writing, the petitions against the conduct of the General Election continue to be heard in the Supreme Court. The Attorney General’s Department, which had earlier indicated its inability to appear for the Elections Commission, had filed preliminary objections against the petitions.

Additional Solicitor General Indika Demuni de Silva pointed out that the petitions had exceeded their prescribed time period and some petitions had defects such as not naming the Attorney General on behalf of the President as a respondent and as such, the petitions could not be maintained.

President’s Counsel Romesh de Silva appearing for Secretary to the President Dr. P. B. Jayasundara, filed two preliminary objections, stating that the petitioners had suppressed material facts in their petitions and that the petitions had been filed against established legal procedures.

In the petition filed by the Secretary of the Democratic United National Front Ariyawansa Dissanayake, the court noted that notice has not been handed over to former Speaker Karu Jayasuriya who was named as a respondent and ordered that serving notice on the former Speaker be expedited.

Attorneys-at-Law Suren Fernando, Ikram Mohamed and Viran Corea presented submissions to court on behalf of some of the petitioners, the SJB, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and the CPA respectively and will continue submissions on their behalf.

The petitions are being heard by a five-judge bench headed by Chief Justice Jayantha Jayasuriya and comprising of Justices Buwaneka Aluvihare, Sisira de Abrew, Priyantha Jayawardena, and Vijith Malalgoda. Their verdict will be eagerly anticipated in legal and political circles.

War Heroes’ Commemoration

These developments did not deter the Government from going ahead with elaborate arrangements to commemorate the eleventh anniversary of the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009. The main commemoration was held at the War Heroes’ Memorial at Battaramulla on Tuesday.

This commemoration is significant because this is the first such event under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who served as Secretary of Defence at the height of the Eelam war and was instrumental in linking the Armed Forces and the political establishment to prosecute the war to an end.

In the years between 2015 and 2019, the commemoration of May 19 anniversary was on a low key. The Government at the time headed by former President Maithripala Sirisena and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe believed that such commemorations hurt minority community sentiments. 

Tuesday’s ceremonies were also muted to some extent because of the Covid-19 pandemic and the resultant restrictions that prevented full public participation. Nevertheless, they were held with ceremonial pomp and pageantry and attended by a group of selected invitees.

Speaking on the occasion President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said that he will not allow anyone to intimidate the country’s war heroes. “I assure you that under my administration, we will take every measure always to protect the dignity of our heroic Forces”, he said.

“I will not allow anyone to exert undue pressure on them or harass them. If any international body or organisation continuously targets our country and our war heroes using baseless allegations, I will also not hesitate to withdraw Sri Lanka from such bodies or organisations,” the President said. 

In what many noted was not a co-incidence, a record number of 14,617 personnel in the Sri Lanka Army were promoted to mark the war heroes’ commemoration. This included five Brigadiers, four Colonels, 39 Majors, 69 Captains and 60 Second Lieutenants who were promoted to the next ranks.

Among those promoted was former Defence Attaché at Sri Lankan High Commission in London Brigadier Priyanka Fernando. Fernando was at the centre of a controversy when he made a ‘throat slitting’ gesture at Eelamist protesters while serving as the Defence Attaché in London in 2018.

This incident generated widespread debate and led to Fernando being recalled to Colombo to avoid a diplomatic incident by the then Government. Later Fernando was charged in a British court and convicted of harassment and disorderly conduct. In Sri Lanka, however he has been hailed as a hero.

Interestingly, attending the war heroes’ commemoration alongside President Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was former President Maithripala Sirisena. Many saw this as confirmation that the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) remains firmly aligned with the Government.

Sirisena himself confirmed this after attending a Central Committee meeting of the SLFP at the party’s headquarters in Darley Road. Asked about differences of opinion with the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), Sirisena shrugged off the question, saying it was part and parcel of politics.

Thus, the SLFP and the SLPP which earlier vehemently opposed each other have come together in preparation for the General Election. In contrast, the United National Party (UNP) has split into the parent party and its estranged faction, the SJB, the latter attracting more former Parliamentarians.

There was some hope among die-hard UNP loyalists that the interruption in political activity caused by the Covid-19 pandemic would offer time and space for the UNP and the SJB to re-evaluate their options and regroup as a single entity, particularly for the upcoming election but it was not to be.

The final nail in the coffin for these reunification plans came in the form of a UNP candidate challenging the SJB’s nomination lists on the grounds the appointment of its General Secretary Ranjith Madduma Bandara was irregular. The matter is now before court pending further determination.

As such, despite the political hiatus caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the battle lines for the next General Election are becoming clearer. It will be a three-way contest between the SLPP-SLFP alliance, the UNP and the SJB, the latter in alliance with a cluster of smaller political parties. The fracture lines in the Opposition clearly swing the pendulum of the polls in favour of the ruling SLPP-SLFP alliance. Besides, the SJB is hampered by the fact that it is has never contested a General Election before and Covid-19 restrictions mean that it cannot launch a fully-fledged campaign.

The big question then will not be who the winner will be in the 2020 General Election. It will be whether the Government will be able to achieve its stated aim of a two-thirds majority in the new Parliament.

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