‘Pitch is open, but play safe’ | Daily News


‘Pitch is open, but play safe’

The Bandaranaike International Airport
The Bandaranaike International Airport

The game has begun. The National Election Commission (NEC) has blown the first whistle inviting the competitors to enter the ring. After warming up at waiting rooms for about three-long months, the candidates have now been allowed to kick start electioneering with the issue of their preferential vote numbers.

However, loads of new rules apply in the upcoming General Election to keep COVID-19 at bay. These new rules, some of which are detailed on page 9 of this newspaper, make this Election different to all elections in the past and as predicted its results too could mark a watershed in Sri Lankan political history.

NEC Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya’s concern is to conduct the Election in keeping with the safety precautions while ensuring a level playing field. Though the waiting game was still on for the Election date, Deshapriya vowed to announce it within this week.

As the campaigns were set to start, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa warned top Government officials against engaging in political activities during the forthcoming Election. In a special directive, the President underlined that the heads of public institutions and members of director boards should not be involved in political activities in favour of any party, and if they wish to do so, they have to officially resign from their respective posts.

Prof Ratnajeevan Hoole

The President emphasised that no public property, public funds or state vehicles should be used for election work, adding that the law would be strictly implemented against any individual who violates this order.

Mock poll

The public as well as election officers curiously watched as the first mock poll was conducted on Sunday to test how best safety precautions against COVID-19 can be adhered to at the upcoming General Election. It was conducted with the participation of about 230 villagers at a temple in Ambalangoda, the home town of Deshapriya. The NEC Chairman was present at the event flanked by his senior officials concentrating hard on each and every step of the voting.

The test run, where face masks, face shields, gloves, sanitizers and temperature checking devices were provided, was a new electoral experience for both the voters and the officers. New but simple methods, like using cotton buds to apply indelible ink on the voter’s finger, have been devised to avoid physical contact. Following a two-hour trial session, Deshapriya expressed his satisfaction over the arrangements, adding that no serious obstacle stands in the way of holding the Election.

Deshapriya has already said that a health official would be deployed at every polling station, and that 5-7 polling stations would be clustered and a doctor, two nurses and a health assistant would be assigned to each of them for constant supervision.

Needless to say, all these additional measures add more to the Election bill. “Democracy is expensive. An elected body of representatives is essential for democracy. Otherwise there can be room for dictatorship,” Deshapriya commented.

He added that the budget of the Election would well exceed the initial estimates of Rs 7 billion and could reach Rs 8-9 billion or even more.

Fresh controversy

In a new but not entirely unexpected development, NEC member Prof. Ratnajeevan Hoole, whose impartiality had been questioned in more than one occasion in the past, stirred up controversy once again over an apparent political remark he had made.

Prof. Hoole, who lives in Jaffna, had allegedly rounded on the ‘Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna’ (SLPP) also indirectly advising the Northerners against voting for the SLPP candidates during an interview conducted in Tamil by a provincial television channel.

NEC Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya observing the mock poll

Prof. Hoole had said that some journalists supporting the SLPP were publishing false information about him and hoodwinking the public. He had dubbed them as those who are opposed to democracy while requesting the Northern voters not to vote for those hoodwinking the people.

SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam lodged an official complaint with the Commission on Prof. Hoole’s statement, adding that it was detrimental to the SLPP. He pointed out that a political comment of this nature by a member of the NEC on the verge of a crucial national election does not augur well for an independent commission.

However, Prof. Hoole maintained that his remarks had been twisted by certain media. “What I said was not to vote for fraudsters. If the hat fits, let the SLPP wear it,” he said.

The ruling party members doubled down on their criticism against Prof. Hoole in the wake of fresh controversy, while NEC Chairman Deshapriya took extra pain to ease the tension and avoid further trouble. Saddled with the onerous task of holding the General Election amidst a health crisis, he was keen to pull the Commission together and concentrate on the task at hand.

It was also learnt that the Constitutional Council, which is responsible for appointing members for independent commissions, has sought two reports, one from Parliament and one from the NEC, on Prof. Hoole’s recent conduct.

The US diplomat

Meanwhile, the United States (US) Embassy received flak from many quarters last week over what was seemingly a deliberate disregard for health precautions against COVID-19 by one of its diplomats at the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA).

The US diplomat, whose identity has not been made public, had entered the country refusing to undergo a PCR test at the airport in the wee hours on Thursday claiming diplomatic immunity.

The US Embassy official was at the receiving end of public ire for not having the decency to comply with the defensive measures set at the airport to prevent a communal spread of the highly contagious virus against which “diplomatic immunity” does not obviously work.

While the US Embassy in Colombo came forward to defend its official stating that “the arrival of the diplomat complied with the norms and procedures outlined in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations”, many politicians across political divide were quick to point out that diplomatic privileges should not be misused at a time like this.

“Reports regarding a US diplomat refusing PCR tests at BIA are so disappointing. Vienna Convention or not, the world is in the midst of a global pandemic and what we need more than ever is cooperation and respect of one another’s national frameworks which are put in place to save lives,” former MP Namal Rajapaksa tweeted.

Loose ends

However, it came to light that the PCR test was made mandatory on arrival at the airport from June 1, and that the official in question had not been aware of the said procedure as the approval for his entry was given on May 26. This was clarified to the media by Additional Secretary to the President for Foreign Relations Admiral Prof. Jayanath Colombage.

Following this incident, the Foreign Relations Ministry promptly issued revised instructions on PCR tests and quarantine procedures for individuals with diplomatic passports to tie up loose ends. Accordingly, it has now been made clear that diplomatic staff members arriving in the country must produce a PCR test report, obtained 72 hours prior to boarding the flight to Sri Lanka, and if unable to do so, the PCR test is mandatory for them at the airport.

The instructions have further underlined that the travel details of the diplomats and their family members, who are scheduled for entry/re-entry into Sri Lanka for diplomatic assignments, must be informed to the Ministry well in advance.

Without allowing space for any ambiguity, the revised instructions have stated that all diplomats/representatives and their family members who arrive in the country have to complete a 14-day quarantine period, and those officers have to produce a second PCR test report before resuming duties.

At the end, the US diplomat with his apparent lack of respect for local procedures helped the local authorities to close the identified gaps in the defensive measures against COVID-19.

The mock poll in progress

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