4 April, 2020

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Even After The Entire Country Was Asked To Stay At Home, Gota Did Not Revoke The Election Gazette 

By Mangala Samaraweera

Mangala Samaraweera – Former Finance Minister

Sri Lankans have lived through countless crises. Civil wars, insurgencies, constitutional coups droughts and famines are but a few examples. Yet, even for the most seasoned among us, these are testing times. The entire nation – now in lockdown – is anxious. We are worried for our loved ones. We stress that our provisions will not last till the next time curfew is lifted. We fear that we will contract the virus when we set out. Day-earners, in particular, dread that their money will run out before the crisis ends. 

We can all take encouragement and hope from the doughty and cooperative spirit we have demonstrated at this time. By and large, the Sri Lankan people and our state have risen to the challenge. Doctors and nurses – the generals and soldiers of our collective fight against the virus – have been doing an extraordinary job. They are at the frontlines, putting themselves at risk to keep us all safe. The public services, police and armed forces also bearing a great burden in supporting their efforts. I know the entire country is grateful to them all. The people have also largely acted with wisdom:  we can be proud that following public health guidelines is not the exception across the island, it is the rule. We can also be proud that the Sri Lankan spirit of generosity has been manifest throughout the length and breadth of our island.  This is true of the private sector too. Many firms are doing their bit to fight the virus. All in all, I think we can be very proud indeed to be Sri Lankans today. In fact, many tell me that the Sri Lankan people and state are setting an example for the entire region. 

Unfortunately, this is not entirely true of our government. First, the Government initially ignored a number of warnings, including warnings raised in Parliament, and failed to take adequate preventative measures, such as in the case of travelers from Italy. Even more worryingly, a tourism promotion video was made by parties close to the very top of the Government just as the pandemic was spreading through the world. There are also reports that persons near and dear to those in positions of power and responsibility have been sent through the VIP lounge to avoid the screening and quarantine process.  

That said, once the WHO raised the alarm, the response has been largely swift and effective. We welcome the fact that the government is following scientific and public health advice. 

With one important exception, which is my second point. Schools were closed, public places shut and holidays granted. The nation was coming to a stand-still. But the Elections Commission and political party offices were hives of activity. What choice did they have? The country was readying for polls. This was clearly a grave public health hazard. Elections are, after all, the precise opposite of social distancing. They involve campaigning, nominations and tens of thousands of public servants organizing a logistically complex operation over months.  

There was no need for elections at that time. The President, although briefed on the coronavirus threat, decided to conduct early polls. Parliament’s term only finishes in August. Polls could be held then. Instead, the President chose to go ahead with polls. Even after the entire country was asked to stay at home the President did not revoke the Election Gazette. By this action he could have bought us all a few more days in the fight against the virus. Since early action matters so much, it may have avoided some of the hardship we are experiencing now. This is why the Elections Commission postponed elections the moment it had the power to do so, on the close of nominations. The Commissioners, sought public health advice, and learnt it was the responsible and right thing to do. The President had access to the same public health advice. Regrettably, his actions appear to have been dictated by other considerations. 

Third, there is absolutely no doubt that emergency measures like curfews are necessary. But any disruption to public life of such a wide-ranging and sustained nature must be predictable, hygienic and adhere to the rule of law. The sudden announcement of curfew last Friday, the very short time-frame for purchasing essential items on Tuesday and arbitrary extensions in some districts are regrettable. Citizens, including senior citizens, were unable to maintain social distancing due to the crowds. Pandemonium reigned in the Pettah market. At many shops, citizens had to wait for hours in the hot sun. This is bad enough. But even those at the frontlines – nurses, police and PHIs had to queue-up to purchase provisions. The government should prioritize delivery services to their families. These risks, hardships and sources of anxiety are regrettable and avoidable. I request the authorities to issue clear and predictable instructions. I also request them to request public health experts to study the practice of other democratic countries to avoid these problems. 

There is also the question of the rule-of-law. The relevant public health legislation and emergency, such as the Quarantine Act, gives the government the powers it needs to fight this virus. But it also specifies how those powers need to be exercised in order to prevent abuse. Therefore, it is my duty to ask, what regulations has the Minister of Health issued to give the curfew legal effect? What legal sanction can the government use to punish curfew-breakers? In fact, the Government has an obligation to publish online all the regulations, whether old or new, that are currently being used to manage this situation. 

Fourth, although it is not yet apparent, perhaps the gravest error the Government has made is its failure to convene Parliament. A pandemic of this magnitude calls for the entire system of governance to work together. There is only so much the President, Prime Minister and Cabinet can do alone. This will become all the more visible should the pandemic mutate into an economic crisis. In order for Sri Lanka to meet both these challenges, it needs to have all arms of government active and working.  

Without Parliament, the government is fighting the virus and its effects with one-hand tied. Without legislative approval, the debt-ceiling cannot be raised to provide economic relief. Nor can any other economic relief measure involving government revenue or expenditure. 

The Pre-Election Budgetary Position Report has just be published. That too is welcome. But it contains an insidious affront to democracy. It states that the Government intends to prepare what it calls a ‘Vote-on-Account’ using the powers of Section 150(3). First, Section 150(3) does not grant the President powers to prepare a Vote-on-Account. There can be no Vote-on-Account without a vote in Parliament. Section 150(3) of the Constitution clearly specifies that the President’s powers to draw on the Consolidated Fund after Parliament is dissolved is limited to funds necessary “for the public services”. In other words, funds necessary for paying the salaries of government servants and keeping the government running. 

Second, the Pre-Election Budgetary Position Report’s stated intention to prepare a so-called ‘Vote-on-Account’ without a vote, usurps the Vote-on-Account voted by Parliament. The Parliament sanctioned Vote-on- ends on 30 April. However, the Pre-Election Budgetary Position Report states that the government intends to prepare a so-called ‘Vote-on-Account’ for March, April and May. It is unacceptable that a vote in Parliament, which the Constitution says “has full control over public finance”, could be overturned by Presidential decree. I will release a detailed statement on this matter in the coming week. 

By depriving Parliament of the opportunity to meet the Government is – entirely avoidably and very irregularly – taking public finance into its own hands. This is even more true because, unlike in 2015 when a budget was passed before polls, the government failed to pass a budget before declaring elections. 

In challenging times, it is also constitutionally proper to have the people’s representatives meet to steer the country through these perilous waters. Section 70(7) of the Constitution, which empowers the President to convene Parliament in an emergency, exists for precisely such an eventuality. Mr. President, I believe it is your duty and responsibility to ensure that Sri Lanka has a legislature at this time of emergency. 

Even if Parliament, on public health grounds, cannot meet as a full House, there are other alternatives. The minimum quorum for Parliament to meet is 20. By mutual agreement, those twenty members can reflect the composition of Parliament. For example, in New Zealand, a Parliamentary Select Committee will function throughout the lockdown to ensure the Government remains accountable to its citizens. 

The next few weeks and months are going to be tough for us all. Our health, livelihoods and economy are under grave threat. Each one of us must do our bit. The doctors and nurses are already doing an extraordinary job advising, directing and healing. Public servants are helping implement the measures they recommend. The Government must govern; humanely, scientifically and legally. The Opposition must both support and critique the Government; constructively, responsibly and creatively. As citizens, we must all follow the guidelines issued by the health authorities at all times and join hands – irrespective of any and all differences – to fight a virus that threatens us all, without regard for borders or any differences created by man. 

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Latest comments

  • 16
    30

    A born loser and a post about him opening his rotten mouth.

    What more can we expect from a gutter press rag of the minorities?

  • 24
    4

    Mangala Samaraweera – The gazette is obsolete. It is now replaced by “Royal Proclamation” by His Excellunacy!

  • 17
    4

    Altogether a well-written article. Regrettably though, the author also makes it an opportunity to take a swipe at the government, along political motivations. Critiquing the government is indeed necessary but it must not hold hidden agendas. Parliament is not as important as the health and well-being of the people. Politicians are renown for putting the public last, in their agendas, where they put themselves first. Now is the time to change this system that rewards crooks and racketeers which include most politicians and large businesses and instead hold aloft, the community servants who always save their fellow country-men in dire straits like right now.

    • 1
      4

      Lasantha P says “Parliament is not as important as the health and well-being of the people”. It seems a dangerous argument for a dictatorship.

      At the same time I am not sure that Parliament can be recalled after it is dissolved. Any legal opinion? If not I think elections ASAP are a must.

  • 12
    6

    Mr. Samaraweera
    On 21/04 the people of Sri Lanka will quietly remember the hundreds of people who were senselessly massacred due to the
    callousness of the impotent ‘government’ we had in place at the time .
    Did your government ever inform “parliament” of intelligence you received of the impending attack on Easter Sunday ?
    The Sri Lankan parliament, and its members are only a massive
    burden on the poor tax payers of this impoverished country.

    • 7
      4

      Mangala you and your boys did very little as the finance minister. You never lived up to your promise. Then you guys finished off the GOP. Sorry I have no time for this. Anyway you are good in opposition so keep that going.

      • 1
        0

        He was the cause of the government’s defeat. Please retire . Time for you to retire with your dog.

  • 13
    10

    Murderous Gota was busy releasing murderers from the prison.

    • 10
      8

      Buddhist .

      “Murderous Gota was busy releasing murderers from the prison.”

      Let’s hope that COVID-19, follows the rules of Karma, and get them all, even though very egalitarian.

  • 1
    1

    This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our Comment policy.

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  • 1
    1

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  • 11
    4

    I am afraid Mangala.S. is rather naive. The country is in the midst of the Corona Virus Lock down. This will be followed by the Economic Lock down. This state of affairs constitute the ingredients needed to take full control with Army backing. Parliament becomes redundant. Actually, the Corona Virus was a blessing in disguise as far as Gota is concerned; Besides, his moves since becoming President in Nov:2019,appointing Army personnel to civilian positions gives away his motives for the long term.
    I am surprised that Mangy who told us about the 18 Million dollars syphoned off by MaRa has not seen through GoRa!

  • 6
    1

    Like any other opposition politician he has pointed out shortcomings in the system. Well taken. Alas! he would necessarily be understood that his comments having political overtones thus undermining the value of his comments. He must realize that we are in the midst of a battle. I am not asking not to follow the rule of law but realize that we are fighting for our lives and their would be shortcomings in taking curative action. I am happy that he dealt the issue on supplies to the people and their seems to be some effort in that regard. The need of the hour is the implementation of two seemingly contradictory positions must take place, akin to having the cake and eating it. On one hand people are required to stay indoors on the other hand the living and livelihood must go on. Above all people of Sri Lanka in general must be commended for understanding the gravity of the situation and acting with restraint.

  • 8
    7

    GR wants to have a’ one horse race’ and win the trophy. Damn the COVID 19 and the ARYA SINHALA BUDDHIST PEOPLE . An election victory is more precious and important to the Sinhala Buddhist Sri Lanka.

  • 1
    2

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  • 4
    2

    Elections are for recycling the same 224. Mangala’s most burning problem is whether he is some one in that. Otherwise, what is a piece of paper when the election is postponed. Elections are not for people or for the country. It is for the international community, for NGOs and all those who wants white washing a crooked parliament.
    We do recycling of 225 for decades. what did they do to Sri lanka ? they have LAke side mansions every where. their whole families are VVIPs of the govt and in very profitable companies as well as business owners or partners.

  • 6
    1

    The ex minister is a professional parliamentarian who has lived his entire working life in luxury at our expense. For people of his ilk maintaining the supremacy of parliament is a matter of life and death . However the general public have realized that it is a bottomless cesspit that is sucking the life blood of this nation.

  • 8
    4

    Remember how you guys handled Easter bombings. I knew, he knew and no action.

    Just imagine if you lot with Sira at the helm were facing Covid 19. Sira would say i did not read about it in newspapers. RW would say I don’t read newspapers. Harin would say my Dad told me about it but I did nothing.

    At least we have a decisive leader now. Compare the infections and death rate with Australia.

  • 6
    1

    I think Gota did the right thing! He let an Independent authority decide on the postponement. I he had revoked, you would have been saying he deprived the people of franchise! Its time all of us acted rationally instead of attaching a political twist to everything!

  • 2
    1

    Don’t worry Man Gala If the people of Matara have any brains they will send you home permanently. Then you can become the administrator of this rag of a blog

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