A health-conscious campaign | Daily News

A health-conscious campaign

Thanks are due to all political parties for generally adhering to all health and environmental guidelines during their campaigns which ended at midnight yesterday. The Coronavirus pandemic dealt a crippling blow to the traditional mass rally loved by our politicians, but there was no alternative other than heeding the advice of the Health DG and health authorities.

Both President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa deserve credit for strictly following the health guidelines during the campaign, in a situation where most other leaders would have sought to use the powers at their disposal to ignore, if not altogether violate, the health guidelines. This also kept the other parties in check, as they could not accuse the ruling party leadership of violating any guidelines. Indeed, all party leaders had delivered a strong message to their candidates and supporters not to scuttle the health regulations as the Coronavirus threat was not entirely over.

One should also admire the role of the Election Commission and the health authorities, which worked in unison to formulate guidelines for holding the election, inclusive of the campaigning aspects. There was no interference in their work from any quarter, though a lot of politicians on all sides were somewhat frustrated over the postponement of the election twice in view of the pandemic. Some of them directed their ire at the election authorities, but it was understood that postponement was the only option at that point of time. Now there is a climate conducive to holding the election, subject to all health guidelines being observed to the letter.

In any case, the August 5 General Election will be a watershed event in the country’s political history for several reasons, chief among which is the fact that it is being held amidst a global pandemic. This is indeed the first time that Sri Lanka will be going to the polls under such conditions, though Sri Lankans have kept faith in the ballot even when the bullets were trying to destroy their lives during the 30-year conflict and also during the JVP-led insurgencies in the South. This time, however, we are battling an unseen enemy that cannot be defeated by guns and weapons. The credit for a enabling a conducive climate to hold an election at this stage goes to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Government, Health personnel, Security Forces/Police/CDS personnel and other essential services personnel.

The pandemic and associated health regulations also forced our politicians to think of new tactics to woo the voters. With the mass rallies gone, they had to organize more pocket meetings and many of them had realised it could be a more effective way to get closer to the voters, whereas they could be hundreds of feet away in a normal mass rally. Pocket meetings are friendlier on the pocket, so to speak, and cost much less. The setting is more intimate, so the voters could share their concerns with the candidates and vice versa.

Most candidates also turned to the social media in a big way especially to address the younger voters, but this has its advantages and disadvantages. Opponents can mercilessly troll candidates on social media and with today’s deepfake and other audio/video manipulation technology, it is easy to put words into one’s mouth, literally. Although fake, these appear so real that most voters will believe them without any second thoughts. These are dangerous trends that have to be addressed with the support and participation of the social media companies. Moreover, not every candidate has funds to spend on social media and Google Ads in a big way. Faced with a severe restriction on the display of preferential numbers (which most first time candidates said was very unfair for them), most candidates also turned to the electronic media and print media to run advertisements. Again, only a certain percentage of candidates could afford to do so. It was also reported that hundreds of millions of rupees had been spent on the campaigns by various parties and their candidates – it is time that donation and spending ceilings are imposed on election campaigning, as done in many other countries. This will enhance the accountability and transparency of all political parties.

What matters now is that the election will be held as scheduled, because delaying the franchise any longer would have made a mockery of our great democratic traditions and ideals. But as the Elections Chief Mahinda Deshapriya said, democracy can be a costly affair, which is especially true this time around as the election is slated to cost a whopping Rs.10 billion. The extra funds have gone for the health precautions and arrangements such as PPEs for election officials, temperature scanners and payments for health staff. But these arrangements are absolutely necessary to conduct a safe, free and fair poll countrywide. Thus on August 5, voters will have nothing to fear as they head to the polls to elect their new people’s representatives.

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