The Elections Commission of Sri Lanka dropped a bombshell in the Supreme Court on Wednesday (20) when lawyers for the independent commission announced that the June 20th parliamentary poll could be delayed further, possibly even for more than two months.
The revelations were made during a third day of hearings into eight fundamental rights petitions challenging the June 20th polls date and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s refusal to reconvene Parliament despite the election delay extending beyond the constitutionally mandated three months for the new legislature to meet.
President’s Counsel Saliya Pieris appearing for the Chairman and another member of the Elections Commission told a five judge bench of the Supreme Court led by the Chief Justice that it would not be possible to hold the parliamentary poll on June 20th as previously gazetted.
He said the Commission fixed the new date for elections on the assumption that the Government announcement that the country would reopen on April 27th.
“It is now May 20th. 23 Districts in the country are under night curfew. Two districts are under full curfew,” Pieiris told the Court during his submissions.
The Commission informed the court that it would require a minimum of 9-11 weeks to prepare for an election after health authorities have given the Commission a green light to go ahead. With 10 days left in the month of May and curfew still in place in most districts, this could delay the election as far back as August 2020.
With the Elections Commission’s announcement in Court that the election would be further delayed, President’s Counsel M.A. Sumanthiran withdrew the petition filed by Charitha Gunaratne, since the only relief the petitioner had sought was a change in the date of election.
Every other petitioner in the 8 before Supreme Court are also challenging President Rajapaksa’s refusal to withdraw his proclamation dissolving Parliament or recall Parliament under Article 70 (7) of the Constitution.
Issuing a double whammy, the Commission also informed court that it had specifically requested President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to seek an expert opinion from the Supreme Court, when the Commissioners realised that the election could not be held ahead of the 2nd June 2020 deadline for a new Parliament to meet.
Pieris PC submitted that under Article 33.1 of the constitution, the President has a duty to the Commission to ensure the creation of proper conditions for conduct of a free and fair election.
“The Elections Commission is mindful that it is a creature of the constitution. That is why the Commission asked for the matter to be referred to the Supreme Court,” Pieris explained.
“The Elections Commission was the first to flag the fact that there was a constitutional issue with its letter to the Secretary to the President. We cannot say there is no constitutional question now. But the Commission has not violated anyone’s rights,” said Asthika Devendra, who appeared as Counsel for EC Member S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole.
Devendra dealt another blow when he suggested that the nominations accepted from March 17-19 were invalid, because they had been accepted on days that had been gazetted as public holidays. “Initially the Commission received a media communication that the 17-19 were special holidays. It was only subsequently that the Commission became aware of the gazette declaring them public holidays. Public holidays are not working days. So now it appears that the nominations accepted on those days are invalid,” Devendra, counsel for Hoole told the Court.
The revelations made by the independent Elections Commission was a huge blow to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government which has tried to push through an election amidst the corona virus pandemic in order to avoid reconvening the Parliament that was dissolved in March 2020. The President faces the uphill challenge of keeping his tenuous alliance with the SLFP together to face the poll and a delay hurts this agenda, Government sources told Colombo Telegraph said.
It is learnt President Rajapaksa was incensed by the Elections Commission’s announcement that polls would be further delayed. Government lawyers have been instructed to make a strong case for how elections can be held even during pandemic conditions. Colombo Telegraph learns that the Government’s Counsel will reveal a “plan for elections” allegedly compiled by “health authorities” to the Supreme Court during their response during the next few days.
Director General Health Services Dr Anil Jaasinghe has also gone public to claim that the only positive COVID-19 cases have been reported from Quarantine Centres and within the Sri Lanka Navy over the last 20 days. But the claims are laughable public health experts warn because the Government is refusing to reveal testing data. It is unclear if the Government is doing regular testing on any citizens outside the quarantine centres or the badly affected armed forces. (By Chinthika de Silva)