Geared up for General Election | Daily News


 

Geared up for General Election

As the threat posed by the Coronavirus pandemic slowly but surely recedes, attention is shifting to the General Election in early August as announced by Chairman of the Election Commission (EC) Mahinda Deshapriya earlier this week.

The pathway for the polls was cleared when the Supreme Court declined to grant leave to proceed to seven fundamental rights petitions which challenged the dissolution of Parliament by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on the grounds that the new Parliament hadn’t convened within three months.

In declining leave to proceed for the petitions, the Supreme Court provided a clear indication that the decision for the date of the election lies with the EC. The EC, which had earlier announced April 25 as the original date for the election and later June 20, is now focused on a date in early August.

To facilitate this, the EC on Sunday conducted a mock poll at a location in Ambalangoda with the participation of 239 voters to determine the actual time needed for conducting the Parliamentary polls in accordance with guidelines formulated by the Ministry of Health.

The instructions were aimed at minimising the spread of the Coronavirus. Prospective “voters” lined up one metre apart from each other according to instructions on social distancing. They were provided with hand sanitizing liquid and with facilities for washing hands before entering the ‘polling station’.

Mock polling station

The officials assigned for duty at the mock polling station wore protective face covers. Most participants had brought pens to mark their ballot papers and those who didn’t were given pens at the ‘polling station’. Every time a pen was used, it was sanitized and reused.

Other precautions were also taken: “voter” identity cards were checked without touching them, indelible ink was applied on their fingers without touching them and infra-red thermometers were used to check the body temperature of participants. The EC is likely to conduct more such ‘mock’ polls shortly.

If the objective of the ‘mock’ poll was to determine the time constraints the new regulations would impose on the election, the ‘trial run’ could be considered a success. The ‘poll’ at Ambalangoda found that it took only marginally more time to conduct the election with the health regulations enforced.

Other preparations for conducting the General Election are going ahead as well. The allocation of preference numbers to candidates has been completed and arrangements are being made for the printing of ballot papers amounting to nearly 17 million.

Government Printer Gangani Liyanage has confirmed that the Department of Government Printing is utilizing its staff to the maximum level possible to complete the task at hand. All ballot papers need to be handed over to the EC at least 14 days prior to the date of the election, Ms. Liyanage said.

Allocation of preference numbers

The allocation of preference numbers was a key issue for candidates. That is because all the campaign materials for a candidate need to carry his or her preference number. The allocation of numbers therefore allows candidates too to go ahead with printing or broadcasting their own promotional material.

There is little doubt that the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) will be the front runner at the election. That there is a trend of public support in favour of the recently formed political party was evident at the 2019 presidential election that propelled Gotabaya Rajapaksa in to power.

Since then, President Rajapaksa has strengthened that support by being decisive, particularly during the Coronavirus pandemic. While there were some lapses, Sri Lanka, despite having meagre resources, escaped a large death toll due to the way the pandemic was managed by the Government.

President Rajapaksa and the SLPP have made no secret of the fact that they wish to secure a two-thirds majority at the General Election, mostly with the aim of repealing the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. Whether they will be able to achieve this is the question on the minds of many.

Favouring the ruling party is the disunity within what was once the main opposition party, the United National Party (UNP). This has now split into the mainstream UNP and its splinter group, the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), led by former leader of the Opposition, Sajith Premadasa.

This is reminiscent of what occurred in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) following the 2015 presidential election. Then, loyalists of victorious President Maithripala Sirisena and his predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa polarised into two camps, the latter going on to form what is now the SLPP.

Eventually, the SLPP, with the leadership of the Rajapaksas and the majority of parliamentarians supporting it emerged as the dominant entity. The SLFP, still led by former President Maithripala Sirisena is now being compelled to contest in alliance with the SLPP but gets only second preference.

A strong message was sent to the SLFP when President Rajapaksa formed his Cabinet. The vast majority of ministers were from the SLPP and the SLFP was relegated to just a few ministers. Senior SLFPers with decades of Parliamentary experience were relegated to deputy ministers.

The newly formed SJB would be hoping that it too can turn tables on the UNP in a similar manner. To begin with, it does have the support of the vast majority of former UNP Parliamentarians. However, they do have a long way to go before they can overcome the SLPP at the upcoming poll.

A major handicap the SJB faces as a newly formed political party is the lack of visibility and an opportunity to launch a campaign in the lead up to the General Election. The SLPP had that opportunity campaigning –and winning- at the 2018 February Local Government Election.

Premadasa campaigned last year as the presidential candidate, but that was for a UNP led coalition. The time he would have to launch the SJB and register it in the minds of the public as a potent political entity has been severely cut short, mostly by the Coronavirus pandemic.

That apart, the UNP is also not allowing the SJB a free run, despite commanding the support of only a handful of ex-Parliamentarians. It is making life difficult for the fledgling party. This included one of its candidates, Oshala Herath, filing a petition seeking to invalidate SJB nominations.

SJB candidates

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court dismissed the petition clearing the way for SJB candidates to campaign for the election without hindrance. It may be a small victory for the newly formed party but a different verdict from the highest court in the country could have spelt doom for the SJB.

A day earlier, UNP leader and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe ran into some heavy weather while addressing party trade unionists at the party headquarters ‘Sirikotha’ in Kotte. They challenged him on his prediction that the UNP will emerge victorious at the General Election.

Wickremesinghe left the meeting but the unionists continued their vocal protests and then walked over to the SJB party headquarters nearby and pledged their support to that party. However, UNP loyalists were quick to discount the incident as an organised and orchestrated event.

The comments made by some UNP stalwarts loyal to Wickremesinghe after the incident on Monday- such as John Amaratunga, Ravi Karunanayake and Palitha Range Bandara- were not flattering about Sajith Premadasa’s leadership style and indicated the level of acrimony between the two factions.

UNP General Secretary Akila Viraj Kariyawasam also re-iterated that it was pursuing disciplinary action against SJB candidates on the grounds that they had violated party discipline. However, it is unlikely that such proceedings could be concluded prior to the General Election.

Previously, Wickremesinghe himself had publicly scoffed at the SJB for being instrumental in filing fundamental rights petitions against the continued dissolution of Parliament, when a new Parliament could not be summoned within three months. The petitions were legally unsound, he opined.

This is in stark contrast to when former President Maithripala Sirisena dissolved Parliament in late 2018, triggering a constitutional crisis. On that occasion, the UNP, including Sajith Premadasa who was offered the Premiership, closed ranks around beleaguered Prime Minister Wickremesinghe.

The SJB suffered another setback when, on Tuesday former Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera announced he was quitting national politics. Brought in to the UNP by Wickremesinghe, Samaraweera had signed nomination papers as a candidate for the Matara district from the SJB and his name will be on the ballot paper.

It is clear that the fissures within the Grand Old Party now run deep. Premadasa loyalists feel that former Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s reluctance to part with the party leadership is being exploited by others who are using that as an opportunity to make headway in the UNP.

It is also certain that attempts to reconcile the differences between the two factions before the early August election are doomed to fail. Ironically, the UNP and the SJB appear to be following the trajectories of the SLFP and the SLPP respectively, declining and evolving as political parties.

Given all these issues dividing the opposition, it will be difficult to imagine an outcome other than a SLPP victory. That though is not the concern of the ruling party. It is aiming at securing 150 seats which will give it untrammelled freedom to govern. 

 

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