Awaiting the new date for the election | Daily News


Awaiting the new date for the election

Supreme Court of Sri Lanka
Supreme Court of Sri Lanka

After many months, politics took centre stage this week overshadowing the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, despite the Coronavirus continuing to influence public life in the country with curfews being imposed to curb mass gatherings which are common during the Poson holidays.

NEC Chairman 
Mahinda Deshapriya

Dominating the headlines was the verdict of the Supreme Court where several petitioners had challenged the President’s proclamation dissolving Parliament on March 2, on the grounds that General Elections haven’t been held and a new Parliament cannot be convened within three months.

Seven petitioners including Attorney-at-Law Charitha Gunaratne, the Centre for Policy Alternatives, journalist Victor Ivan and the major opposition political party, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) filed Fundamental Rights petitions challenging the presidential proclamation.

The petitions were accorded a lengthy hearing by the five-judge bench that included Chief Justice Jayantha Jayasuriya and Justices Buwaneka Aluvihare, Sisira de Abrew, Priyantha Jayawardena and Vijith Malalgoda who heard submissions for ten days.

On Tuesday the Supreme Court announced its verdict. Chief Justice Jayantha Jayasuriya stated that by a unanimous decision, it had refused to grant leave to proceed to the seven Fundamental Rights petitions challenging the dissolution of Parliament and the date of the General Election.

The Supreme Court also noted that the initial objections raised by the respondent party regarding the petitions have been rejected by the majority of the five-member judge bench. Accordingly, the seven Fundamental Rights petitions have been dismissed without being taken up for further hearing.

Predictably, both sides of the political divide have claimed victory after the Supreme Court verdict. Speaking after the verdict, former Parliamentarian Susil Premajayantha stated that the verdict vindicated the President’s actions in refusing to re-summon the dissolved Parliament.

Premajayantha argued that four of the seven petitions were sponsored by the SJB. The challenge before the Government was ensuring the health of the public in the face of the Coivid-19 pandemic but it was also ready to face the voters at an election unlike the SJB, the former Minister said.

The late Minister 
Armumugam Thondaman

Minister Prasanna Ranatunga claimed that opposition political parties which were fighting shy of an election attempted to postpone polls using the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse but their strategy had been thwarted by the Supreme Court. The General Election should be held as soon as possible, he said.

General Secretary of the SJB, Ranjith Madduma Bandara who was among those present in court when the verdict was delivered however also claimed victory. The aim of the petitions was to prevent an election when the Covid-19 pandemic was threatening the lives of people and this was achieved, he said.

Madduma Bandara stated that the dispute over the election date could have been averted had President Gotabaya Rajapaksa heeded the suggestion from the Elections Commission and sought an opinion from the Supreme Court but he refused to do so. The SJB was prepared for polls at any time, he said.

Former parliamentarian M. A. Sumanthiran who made submissions during the hearing also noted that an extremely important aspect of the case was the Elections Commission informing the Apex Court at the outset that conducting the General Election on June 20 was no longer a viable option.

The detailed reasoning underpinning the Supreme Court decision is not available at the time of writing and when this is made public, it will no doubt set out the parameters which clearly define the functions of the Executive, the Legislature and the independent Elections Commission.

However, it is apparent that the Court has upheld one aspect in principle- that the reconvening of a new Parliament within the constitutionally stipulated three-month period is not an absolute pre-requisite for the validity of the dissolution of Parliament. This was a major issue that was in dispute.

The verdict also makes the way forward clearer, both for the Government and the Elections Commission. During the lead up to the petitions, the Government and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa maintained that fixing the date of the election was the task of the Elections Commission.

This position, now upheld for all intents and purposes by the Supreme Court, puts the onus on the Commission of Elections to fix a new date for the poll which, at the time of writing, still theoretically is June 20. From a logistical point of view, it is however not possible to hold the poll on this day.

During the hearing of the Fundamental Rights petitions, the Elections Commission indicated to Court that it would take about ten weeks from the date of everyday life returning to ‘normal’ in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, for free and fair the elections to be held without any hindrance.

This period was required, the Commission said, because the levels of restricted activity brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic meant that more time would be required by the Commission for election related activities such as training staff, setting up polling stations and transporting ballot boxes.

During the hearing of the petitions, a letter reportedly from the Director General of Health Services was also submitted to Court, outlining the conditions that needed to be created for elections to be held. It is now up to the Elections Commission to decide whether these conditions have materialised.

While there would be a general agreement that the date of June 20, 2020 is not feasible because the intervening time period is less than three weeks from now, it is also likely that the Elections Commission would attempt to expedite the process of conducting the poll.This is partly because of the Supreme Court verdict but would also be partly because it is evident that the Covid-19 pandemic is likely to be a long drawn out event and waiting for ‘absolute’ conditions may not be practical because that would entail a delay of many months and possibly even years.

In perhaps what was an indication of this process, the Government Printer commenced the printing of 17 million ballot papers for the General Election on Tuesday itself, hours after the Supreme Court verdict was announced. Typesetting and other preparations had anyway been carried out previously.

Apart from the Supreme Court verdict, another unexpected event last week with political implications was the demise of Minister of Community Empowerment and Estate Infrastructure Development and Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC) leader Arumugam Thondaman, following a sudden heart ailment.

On Tuesday May 26, Thondaman had engaged in many activities including meeting with new Indian High Commissioner Gopal Baglay and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. At the latter meeting Thondaman had raised the issue of a minimum wage of 1000 rupees a day for planation workers.

Having returned home, he sustained a fall and was pronounced dead on admission to hospital. Having supported President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the last presidential election, Thondaman and Douglas Devananda were the only members representing the Tamil community in the Cabinet.

Arumugam Thondaman would always be remembered in the shadow of his grandfather, the late Saumyamoorthy Thondaman who led plantation workers of Indian origin for several decades and obtained Sri Lankan citizenship for them by joining the government of then President J. Jayewardene.

The younger Thondaman had his share of political ups and downs, supporting Ranil Wickremesinghe at the 2005 presidential election before switching allegiance to President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2010. Thondaman remained loyal to President Rajapaksa in 2015, thus being on the losing side.

Thondaman drew his strength from the vote base the CWC commanded in the hill country, particularly in the Nuwara Eliya district which had been a traditional United National Party (UNP) stronghold for many decades until the CWC made a dent in their support in the region.

Therefore, presidential aspirants and major political parties contesting General Elections have been keen to woo him to ensure his support at the polls although the younger Thondaman never quite achieved the ‘kingmaker’ status that his grandfather did under successive Governments.

Thonadman’s remains were first brought to Parliament for his colleagues to pay their last respects and then airlifted to Norwood in Nuwara Eliya where his funeral was held last Sunday. The mass gathering seen at the funeral also attracted criticism for violating social distancing regulations.

No sooner had the funeral been concluded, discussions about a successor for Thondaman in his role as leader of the CWC were held. Although Arumugam Thonadman’s nephew Senthil Thondaman has more political experience, his son Jeevan Thondaman (26) is now tipped to take over the CWC leadership.It is clear that the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) will be keen to ensure it has the continued support of the CWC for the forthcoming General Election. Meanwhile, as a temporary measure, Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa was sworn in as minister to the portfolio held by Thondaman.

With legal obstacles now out of the way, it will now be a matter of weeks before the General Elections are held. The Government will be extremely keen to restore normality as soon as possible so that this could occur and a further easing of restrictions can be expected within the next few days.

The tally of Covid-19 cases in the country now stands at over 1,600. The numbers have increased over the past week due to the influx of infected persons from overseas (now called Imported Cases). However, they are being identified, quarantined and managed and authorities are confident there is no community spread.

All eyes will now be on the Elections Commission which is tasked with announcing the new date for the General Election after taking into consideration the recommendations of health authorities. Unlike April 25 and June 20, this date is likely to be the day when Sri Lankans will in fact go to the polls.

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