A victory for democracy | Daily News


A victory for democracy

A major hurdle for holding the 2020 General Election has been overcome with the dismissal of the Fundamental Rights petitions that challenged the dissolution of Parliament and the slated date for the poll (June 20). This can be described as a major victory for democracy and the franchise, since any further delay, the Coronavirus pandemic notwithstanding, would have further complicated the present imbroglio.

This verdict makes it clear that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa made the right call in dissolving Parliament and calling for a General Election. President Rajapaksa and others in the Government have made it clear that there was no Constitutional requirement per se for recalling the dissolved Parliament. As many of the respected President’s Counsel who made submissions observed, a “dead” Parliament cannot be brought back to life unless in the case of an exceptional emergency. They noted that the Coronavirus pandemic did not qualify as such a dire emergency, since it has been controlled to a great extent within our borders and there were no signs of community transmission. This is indeed a victory achieved by our heroic health personnel and Security Forces/Police/CDF personnel.

Now the onus is on the National Election Commission (NEC) to fix another date for the poll, since June 20 is out of the question for all intents and purposes. The NEC has already gone on record saying they need around 60-70 days to prepare for the polls, not to mention the need for political parties, independent groups and candidates to engage in propaganda. The NEC is likely to receive health guidelines for conducting the poll (also covering pre and post poll periods) from the Director General of Health Services and the Health Secretary today, which will enable it to fast track the preparatory phase. The health authorities had earlier indicated that the poll can be held subject to the relevant health and safety precautions being taken.

This brings us to the question of propaganda and campaigning. Politicians depend on huge public rallies and close interactions with the voters to drive their message home. It is still not known whether the health authorities will permit such gatherings due to the possibility of a second wave of the disease. But what are the alternatives available to the political parties and candidates ?

Posters are now passé due to environmental concerns and prohibitive costs. The electronic media should be an ideal outlet for propaganda, but it will be logistically and financially impossible to accommodate thousands of candidates on radio and TV – the two State-owned TV networks were overwhelmed trying to give time slots to the 35 presidential aspirants last year. However, it should still be possible to give air time on a limited basis for the leaders of all political parties to make a pitch for their respective candidates.

The other option is social media. With practically everyone in the country having two or more mobile phones, most politicians are already on social media 24x7 to interact with potential voters. But the problem with social media is the possibility for the dissemination of hate speech, fabrications and other defamatory or incendiary material by individual candidates who will be in the so-called “manape” (preference votes) tussle. Political parties must give clear guidelines to their candidates on the use of social media and also have a close tab on what they are saying over such platforms, which are hard to police.

The poll itself will be a novel experience for the NEC, political parties and the voters, since a poll has not been held here in living memory under the present circumstances. The NEC will essentially look for precedents from around the world. South Korea recently held a national election amidst the pandemic, which has since been described as the most successful election ever held in that country. Forty four million voters followed stringent guidelines to cast their vote. South Korea disinfected polling centres, and mandated that voters practise physical distancing, wear gloves and masks and use hand sanitizer. Voters had their temperatures checked on arrival at the booths. Those who had a temperature above 37.5 degrees Celsius were sent to booths in secluded areas. The COVID-19 affected and quarantined individuals were allowed to vote by post.

But South Korea is not the only country to have held elections during this period – eight other countries have done so successfully. India and Singapore are among the other countries that are planning to hold elections amidst the present conditions. This is inevitable because many health experts say the Coronavirus pandemic could last as long as two years – even if a vaccine is made available by this time next year, vaccinating seven billion people will not be an easy task. It would indeed be a violation of the people’s right to vote if an election were to be postponed by two or more years until the pathogen is wiped out. Thus the Supreme Court has reached the right verdict and now it is up to the NEC to deliver the goods.

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