30 September, 2020

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Coronavirus Threat To Democracy In Sri Lanka?

By Lucien Rajakarunanayake

Lucien Rajakarunanayake

The coronavirus is posing a major challenge to the continuance of proper electoral democracy in Sri Lanka.

The oldest democracy in Asia, from 1931, is in a struggle to protect the democratic process, especially proper and timely national elections, in the lockdown situation caused by the coronavirus, and a government pushing harder for a quick election.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, elected by a very large majority in the presidential poll held last November, dissolved parliament on March 2, six months before its 5-year term ended, to have an early election, seeking a two-thirds majority in the next parliament, and restore the highly authoritarian powers of the Executive Presidency.

The dissolution of parliament took place as the coronavirus was spreading and people were asked to observe social distancing. The nominations of candidates for the next election fixed for April 25, concluded on March 18, and following an islandwide police curfew and a major lockdown over coronavirus, the three-member Elections Commission declared the election could not be held on the scheduled April 25. As the coronavirus spreads in many parts of the island, the Elections Commission has now announced the next poll date would be June 20, — nearly a month after the end of May date, anticipated and pushed for by the government.

The announcement of the new date, itself uncertain under prevailing conditions, came after President Rajapaksa turned down a proposal by the Elections Commission that he seeks the advice and guidance of the Supreme Court on the constitutional process involved in delaying elections to choose the new parliament.

The coronavirus has now become a political epidemic in Sri Lanka. The issue of Rs. 5000/- to the several millions (US $ 1 = SL Rs. 200 approx) who now have no income, giving rice and vegetables to people with all trade outlets closed, helping the thousands of women in the now shut down garment industry, many thousands shut out of the tourism and hotel sector, and giving financial relief assistance to the unemployed and aged have all become political moves hugely controlled by the ruling party led by the Rajapaksa family.

Sri Lanka has a measure of family dominance in politics and government, more than what it was when President Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated in the presidential poll in January 2015. He then sought a third term as president, having grabbed a two-thirds majority in parliament through Cabinet and government office, and much financial benefits offered to members of parliament who crossed over to the government, after the Rajapaksa government defeated the Tamil Tiger separatists ending a war against terrorism lasting nearly 30 years.

The constitutional changes brought by the two-thirds majority saw the two-term limit of the Executive President removed, and the president to have unlimited six-year terms, as in many African countries. The government control over the various commissions that managed the Public Service, Police, Elections, Human Rights and many other services was increased and the independence of such commissions removed.

What the goal of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, and the “Pohottuva” or Lotus Bud party they lead today, is the removal of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, adopted in 2015, after the defeat of President Mahinda Rajapaksa when seeking a third term in the presidency, reduced the powers of the Executive President, restored the two-term limit to the president, ensured the independence of the public commissions, reduced the parliamentary term to five years, and took the portfolio of Defence away from the president, although he/she remains the Commander-in-Chief. The 19th Amendment was passed with only one member of parliament voting against it, and the huge majority included the support of the MPs of the Rajapaksa-led Sri Lanka Freedom Party and its allies. Most of them are now supporting the Rajapaksa leaders against the 19A.

The appointment of ex-service personnel to key positions in government by the current Gotabaya Rajapaksa president and brother Prime Minister shows the government’s overall move to have a services-led government, and away from the citizen’s leadership of a democracy.

The major clash today between the Rajapaksa government and the wider democratic political process is the independence of the Elections Commission. It saw the dangers of the coronavirus and did away with the April 25 national election. It’s current decision to hold the next election on June 20, is away from the government’s end May goal. The island is likely to come to a major constitutional crisis due to the inability of the new parliament to meet on June 2 this year, three months after the dissolution of parliament on March 2nd. This raises a major crisis on the government’s inability to obtain funds from the Treasury, which needs parliamentary approval. The situation tightens after April 30, the final date for funds from the Consolidated Fund has been given by the now dissolved parliament.

Amidst all the problems faced by the people in the coronavirus lockdown, the Rajapaksa family is displaying its dominance in the increasingly corrupt politics in the country. The family has one brother Gotabaya as President, an elder brother Mahinda as Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, Economic Affairs, Policy Development, Buddhism, Urban Development and Housing, another brother Chamal as Minister of Agriculture, Rural Development, Internal Trade, Food Security, Consumer Welfare and State Minister of Defence.

The power of the Rajapaksa family is emphasized with another brother, Basil Rajapaksa, who is General Secretary and chief organizer of the Lotus Bud party, not elected to the past parliament, and not contesting the coming election, due to his being a dual citizen of Sri Lanka and the USA, being the key manager and manipulator of the coronavirus politics. On March 26 he was appointed to head a Presidential Task Force to Coordinate and Monitor the Delivery of Essential Goods, and Sustenance of Community Life. This placed the political party of the Rajapaksa government in charge of distributing all assistance to the lockdown affected people. Most of such assistance soon went largely to pro-government people, and rice packs and other items even had the ‘lotus bud’ printed on them. He has now been appointed to head another Presidential Task Force for economic revival and poverty eradication, showing the overall control of the coronavirus aid and assistance by the politics of the Lotus Bud party and the Rajapaksa family.

The Covid-19 has 433 infected persons, 107 recovered, and 07 deaths in Sri Lanka at the time of writing. The health authorities are now moving to increased testing of the people, which was very low from the beginning of the outbreak in early March this year, and repeatedly sought by health professionals.

What the coronavirus is threatening Sri Lanka today, is a major attack on its democracy, which has survived with much corruption and political mismanagement through the past 72 years since independence from British colonial rule in 1948. The emerging constitutional crisis and postponed polls pose a danger of death to Sri Lankan democracy, and the further rise of family power and politics in the country.

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Latest comments

  • 9
    4

    We owe a debt of gratitude to Lucien Rajakarunanayake, one of Sri Lanka’s most senior journalist, for continuing to give us clear sighted opinions. Here is an individual who has steered away from political parties of different hues during his long career and survived. He is impartial and free from all favouritism. He calls a spade a spade. We must listen carefully to such words of wisdom.

    • 4
      0

      Sonali,

      Is that so? I do recall Mr. LR toadying up to Mahinda Rajapaksa when he was President. Maybe you can say he is not as bad is Malinda Seneviratne or Rajpal Abeynayake, but he doesn’t have a clean journalistic record.

      • 2
        1

        LR was a disgrace for most part of the last two decades.
        The other two you mention have each a consistent stand, and lie if necessary to defend it.
        LR was an opportunist

        • 0
          0

          Lucien was a respected and balanced journalist in those days. I can still remember his masterpiece which he wrote : “If the war continues, we will have to buy Karuththa Koulmban and Kottai Kilangu in the duty free shops in Colombo”. Sadly though made in a sarcastic manner, his prophesy did not materialize

  • 6
    0

    It has been said that God moves in mysterious ways, so, if God does exist, is certainly seems to be smiling at the Rajapakses, while, probably, banishing the rest of the country to hell. To the adoring fans of the Rajapakses, all those in developed countries jealous of SL’s prosperity were given the 2 finger salute but didn’t seem to realise that a poor country like SL needs the markets of those countries for our (meagre) exports, as well as, for much needed aid, technology & investment. Today, many, as responsible tourists, apart from back packers, research how tourism is sustained without ecological damage & the benefit it brings to average citizens before deciding on a holiday destination, therefore, the political environment & human rights are important when promoting as an exotic holiday destination. Accordingly, alienating much of the developed world is not going to help.

    In the current situation of empty FOREX reserves for importing even necessities, the only friends SL can turn to are the Chinese, who, I am sure will be happy to give loans at commercial rates to a point of no return. Am I premature in announcing SL as the unofficial colony of China with a puppet govt. installed by the Chinese & a military to quash any uprising that may follow in a period of extreme austerity?

  • 4
    0

    Why do we keep saying that Gota got a huge majority. As on earlier occasions, Preferences didn’t have to be counted. Today’s voters seem less sophisticated than earlier. Sad. It’s difficult to think of them ever learning. But they turn up to vote – impervious to the need to send an intelligent result
    .
    Yes, Sonali, Lucien has kept going for an amazingly long time. I look forward to reading more from him.
    .
    Not much else to be happy about!

    • 3
      0

      Sinhala_Man

      “Why do we keep saying that Gota got a huge majority. “

      Why does a section of noisy minority continue to claim they being the Majority have the right to do anything they want to in this island and very often annoyingly claims this is Sinhala/Buddhist country or exclusively belong to them?

      How are you?
      Take care

  • 3
    0

    PART I. A well thought and presented article by a very senior journalist. The Basilian element is financial driver of the entire operation. What is noticeable is the dole presented in the eve of an election constituting a leveraging act of gaining votes, another big “Sil Redda”. What is not visible is the terrific mark up in the form of delivery charges for goodies by those who have curfew passes. I am not the surprised of any corruption involved in being recognized for delivery and thereby a curfew pass for the same. SOME CAN KILL MANY BIRDS WITH ONE STONE. The big man is damn cool about summoning of Parliament after a general election. HE says let the elections be held in whatever date and then we can gazette a new date to summon Parliament. Appears to be “Very Practical”. Didn’t any SOB of an advisor ever tell HIM the moment you modify the original gazette giving a date of convening a new Parliament exceeding the three month limit HE stands having violated the CONSTITUTION? Isn’t HE going back on his own word promising the world that all what HE does will be constitutional and legal. MY FOOT!

  • 2
    0

    PART II(A). The biggest deception here is the statistics presented. Out of the 433 discovered infected, 107 were cured and 7 have passed away. Simple arithmetic tells us that 319 remain infected and are in health care. But they do not tell us from whom amongst the 319 are on ventilators and / or in a critical condition. I am informed that in the absence of a real cure in the nature of a vaccine, what is administered in essence is steam mixed with the aroma of certain leaves and Ayurvedic medication such as “Kottamalli, Venvelgata and Osu Pan Kenda” etc. One therefore wonders whether all this requires the attention of full blown IDH. I expect a smart medic, if he is allowed by his own professional colleagues, to suggest a localized form of caring non-critically infected. The medics now say that there are the infected who do not show any symptom at all and that causes a scare to clamp a curfew in “bad districts”. What about a more positive approach in asking what is the likelihood of having a bad patient because of such persons?

  • 1
    0

    PART II(B). All must forgive me for looking stupid. But I must dare in the interest of the community. One can say that SARS, COVID 19 viruses are a different kettle of fish and the impact is more severe than the “ordinary viral fever” and not talk of “protective measures”. But the reality is although the mortality rate is higher for these viral attacks we need to have a system to locally caring infected persons who are not critically ill and fill hospitals with them. Known risk factors for COVID 19 cases for critical care is diabetes, obesity etc. Such cases can deserve admission to hospitals even if they are hale and hearty. In any case, the even if there is a viral infection, symptoms shown or not, my limited knowledge tells me that it prevails within the body for a limited number of days. So we need a system of aggressive testing, (that includes the local manufacture of reliable PCR testing machines and accessories) to declare which of the persons (or areas) are free from virus and otherwise just as much as done in a particular market area. Separate out non-critically infected for out of hospital health care.

  • 1
    0

    PART III.. Just because you find an infected guy must you block out an entire District? I understand that there is a proposal to allow fellows to move about based on the last digit of the identity card. That would reduce fellows on the streets but are the shops and other institutions open for this? In the absence of active combat of the disease such as active identification the imposition of a lock down necessarily viewed with suspicion as to whether there is an ulterior motive. Is everything stage acted to function without elections? Is there an underhand deal that includes the opposition as well? Are persons profiting because if restrictions? The questions that can be raised has no limit. It is in everybody’s interest to contain the COVID 19 meaningfully so that the normal lives of people are minimally disturbed with adequate social distancing. Today it is COVID 19. Tomorrow it can be something else without a cure. Each time MUST WE LOCK DOWN AN ENTIRE COUNTRY?

  • 1
    0

    No one can save Srilanka either Corona or Gota (Mahinda Family) dictatorship until thousands of Buddhist Sinhala dies in Corona or food shortage. Srilanka had a democracy for sake of name but the Country was ruled by Buddhist Sinhala Fundamentalism. Now Tamils and Muslims have lost their rights but from now Sinhalese will loose their right to Mahinda family military dictatorship. Dictatorship means poverty, military misuse of power which includes rapes, robbery, murder. People have forgotten the period between 2009 and 2014. There is no option now.

  • 0
    0

    The Corona Virus is the biggest tragedy for the world at large.
    But not for the Rajapakse siblings particularly Basil Rajapakse.
    This is indeed a GOD-SEND for him.
    The past master of manipulation he will now manipulate the Politics of the Covid-19 and also the Covid-20!

    • 0
      0

      I thought going by all the happenings sofar, MMV (Madamulana Musalaya Virus) is more dangerous to the country than COVID19 virus.

      1) MMV does not let democratic systems be in place but their family rule
      .
      2) Gotabaya, Basil, Mahinda, Namal, Rohitha, Yoshitha, Murderous woman Shiranthi, and all were the names we heard as as alleged high criminals in the very recent past… remember ?
      .
      3) But people s mislead brought them back to power
      .
      4) Today the very same people, as voters scream, ” we will never give our votes to you SLPP again”:
      .
      5) They abuse their power, not respecting any norms – who on earth, except the insane, would agree any outside man by name Basil Bp Rajaakshe to lead that fund distribution commission. We all know this ballige putha looted it to the core, and that land and property in Gampaha was alleged to have built by them… even if law and order bodies had no balls to call a spade a spade. That is somehow the law and order ruiney by Rajapkshes over the years. ‘

      6). We talk high about GOTA, but can we do it further if we know that HE BEHAVE and continue as if A SUBMISSIVE person would do? What happened to his backbone, is that too taken away from his brothers ?
      .
      He promised to the nation, that he would make tangible changes to standing against corurption, what has happened sofar ?
      :
      Now the very same people say, former GOVT is thousand times better than the current one, … ha ha…we are a doomed nation… by every ways.

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