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.