The coronavirus pandemic is not only damaging lives and economies; it is also playing havoc with the Sri Lankan leadership’s electoral hopes and strategies, writes Neville de Silva
Ever since the first case of coronavirus was detected in Sri Lanka in late January, when a Chinese woman tourist was found to be infected, the five-month-old Gotabaya Rajapaksa caretaker government has been grappling with the spreading epidemic.
Initially unprepared and then slow to deal with it rigorously enough – the annual inter-college cricket matches, including Rajapaksa’s alma mater, were being played right up to mid-March, attended by many thousands of spectators – the government finally began to get a grip on the crisis.
Still, Sri Lanka is not out of the woods. In the three days before writing, 65 new cases were identified, most of them in the capital Colombo.
As though the enormous damage done by this pandemic to human capital and a fragile economy is not enough of a tragedy, following on from the Easter Sunday attacks by Muslim extremists a year ago, another virus also appears to be haunting the country.
This time it is man-made. It is a political virus that threatens to end up in the highest court in the land as contending parties question the political motivation that prompted President Rajapaksa’s dissolution of a parliament that had another six months to run, and the legitimacy of trying to hold island-wide elections in the midst of a deadly pandemic that Sri Lanka is yet to tame.
Robert Burns wrote in his poem ‘To a Mouse’ an oft-quoted line which, adapted into English from his Scottish dialect, reads, ‘The best laid plans of mice and men/ often go awry.’
That is just the predicament in which the Rajapaksa administration finds itself as its plans for an early election have been thwarted by COVID-19. Consequently, the independent National Elections Commission (NEC) decided to postpone the parliamentary poll scheduled for April 25. That was the date President Rajapaksa had selected, on astrological advice or as his own preference, when he dissolved parliament on March 2.
The NEC informed the president that in the current circumstances it would not only be hazardous but near impossible to run an island-wide election. It needed to deploy thousands of state officials to man polling stations, permit campaigning and be prepared for the inevitably long queues of voters in a country that consistently records a turnout of over 80 per cent, exposing many to possible infection.
Containing the spread of the infection in such a situation – where medically testing officials and, most importantly, voters (if that is to be done for purposes of safety) and maintaining social distancing – would prove an unenviable task.
This position was strongly supported by most opposition parties, civil rights organisations and some medical experts. But the Rajapaksa-led Sri Lanka People’s Front (SLPP) countered it, accusing the political opposition of being scared to face an election.
Gamini Lakshman Peiris, chairman of the SLPP and a former law professor turned politician, cited South Korea’s recent national election as an example of polls being held under similar circumstances. Yet Prof Peiris’s analogy is hardly apposite and lacks supportive evidence. Comparing South Korea’s preternatural readiness to meet catastrophic eventualities, given its history and geopolitical relations and its subsequent handling of the coronavirus epidemic, cannot surely be equated with Sri Lanka’s early fumbling and policy indecisions.
As one wag said, it was like comparing coconuts with monkey nuts (peanuts).
When the government decided to lift the curfew in Colombo and some nearby districts, it announced an eight-hour break. Then, on the day it was to be lifted, the hours were suddenly reduced to six, leaving long queues of expectant customers before shops and pharmacies in a quandary. Then, a couple of hours later, unknown to most people, the earlier eight-hour break was restored.
A couple of days before writing this, the Excise Department announced that liquor stores previously ordered to shut down could open during the non-curfew hours. As notoriously ‘thirsty’ Sri Lankans, some of whom had been detected distilling their own brews in the meantime, anxiously waited for the shops to open, they were wrong-footed when the decision was reversed the next day. Then, the day after that, the decision was reversed yet again and shop owners were told to operate under a different law.
Some might see these as minor blemishes. But not to an irate citizenry, who wanted to know how an administration unable to perform even such simple tasks could handle the more complex strategies connected with the pandemic.
When the April election was cancelled, President Rajapaksa had a constitutional option. He could have revoked his earlier proclamation dissolving parliament and recalled the legislature. But this he did not want to do. He had been humiliated once when he wanted parliament to pass funds to meet contingencies until a new parliament was ready to announce new measures.
The previous finance minister’s Vote-on-Account, passed when the Maithripala Sirisena-Ranil Wickremesinghe coalition was in power, ran only till the end of April.
Moreover, the president was determined not to recall the 2015 parliament, which the Rajapaksas considered obstructive as it had proved earlier. The concern was that the opposition would use a temporarily resurrected House to deprecate the government for jettisoning promises and for their perceived failings over the handling of COVID-19. Reviving parliament would give a badly divided opposition, which last November lost the presidential election, a renewed voice, however brief it might be, before an upcoming election.
With the president’s office insisting that choosing a new date for the parliamentary poll was the responsibility of the Election Commission, the three-member commission met on April 20 for consultations with top health sector officials, police, army and other stakeholders. It then announced June 20 as the new date for the election.
The next day saw irate representatives of political parties castigating the Commission for selecting a date without consulting them. Under fire, Commission chairman Mahinda Deshapriya beat a retreat, reportedly saying that June 20 (which happens to be President Rajapaksa’s 71st birthday), was not final and would be reviewed on May 4, when progress made on containing Covid-19 would be assessed and the possibility of proceeding with the election weighed.
To Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who overwhelmed his presidential contestant at last November’s election and seemed confident of winning the parliamentary contest, the delay of a couple of months will not make a real material difference, unless the epidemic returns in a more virulent form in a second wave and takes an unprecedented political and economic toll.
Had it been possible, he would have liked to govern without a parliament, to give him and his many retired military men functioning in several key state jobs a firmer grip on the state.
That is why his eyes are on winning a two-thirds majority at the upcoming election. If he fails then, he will have to inveigle some other elected members with offers of ministerial or deputy ministerial roles to make up the numbers – a manoeuvre not uncommon to Sri Lankan and other politicians.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa is determined to repeal the 19th constitutional amendment passed by the previous government that seriously curbed presidential powers, handing them over to parliament and to the prime minister. That amendment also tried to block the Rajapaksa family from returning to power.
But before the country’s new leader can achieve that he will be watching opposition moves to invoke the courts with constitutional and legal challenges as some in the opposition have threatened to do.