Fearing the electoral fallout of a projected devastating economic meltdown within a few months, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has made the decision to hold a national election amidst the coronavirus pandemic highly placed government sources told Colombo Telegraph.
The election will endanger the lives of millions of Sri Lankans with some 15 million people registered to vote in the parliamentary elections. Worse still Sri Lanka votes by manual ballot which requires voters at every polling booth across the island to touch ballot papers and submit pinky fingers to polling agents for marking with indelible ink, a nightmare scenario during a contagious infectious disease outbreak.
The decision comes amid calls by medical professionals and public health experts to increase testing for COVID-19 in Sri Lanka because the country’s fatality ratio is high and could indicate a far wider spread than is currently being reported by authorities. Most countries report a fatality rate of about 1-2% from the corona virus. However 7 persons have now died of Covid-19 in Sri Lanka with only 258 cases being reported, indicating a 3% fatality to case ratio in the island. Infectious disease experts contend that it is nothing short of madness to contemplate a nation wide election in the middle of a viral outbreak that has killed over 100,000 people worldwide.
Dr. Prasanna Cooray former South Asia Manager for the Global AIDS programme and Sri Lankan infectious disease expert told India’s the Hindu newspaper last week that it was “absurd” to even think of elections in the middle of the pandemic. “How can we even predict when the infections will stop spreading?” The election fever seems to have preceded the government’s COVID response, as poll nominations went on from March 12-19, even as our first few cases were being reported.” Dr Cooray told the Indian newspaper.
On March 31, 2020 the Chairman of the National Elections Commission Mahinda Deshapriya wrote to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s secretary, informing him that due to the pandemic situation the Commission could not make necessary arrangements to hold the election. The Commission said in that letter that they would need to start making preparations by April 20th 2020 at least in order to hold elections in time for Parliament to meet by 2nd June 2020.
The very next day, April 1st 2020, the Elections Commission issued a second “most urgent” letter to the Secretary to the President. In that correspondence, the Elections Commission informed the President in no uncertain terms that with infection numbers climbing, the Commission was convinced that it could not hold the election by the end of May 2020 in order to allow the new parliament to meet by June 2, as required by the constitution. Under the circumstances, given the pandemic conditions, the Commission called on the President to seek an opinion from the Supreme Court about the way forward.
The constitution allows only a hiatus of three months from the date of dissolution of Parliament – in this case 2nd March 2020 – for the country to function without a Legislature. Once that time period lapses, President Rajapaksa fears he may have no choice but to re-summon the old Parliament whose term was originally valid till August 2020, government sources said. According to these sources President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is also mulling executive rule without a parliament in the event elections cannot be held. However having weighed the options the President has decided that he cannot take a major political risk by delaying elections beyond May 2020.
As a result the Government is moving swiftly to create a situation of normalcy, even as medical experts continue to make urgent calls for more testing and warn that the number of corona virus cases in Sri Lanka are most likely much higher than currently reported and while other countries worldwide continue to extend the lockdowns and shelter in place orders on their populations. India for instance has extended lockdown till May 3.
Last week, Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachhi announced that the corona virus crisis would be “over” by April 19, a day before the Election Commission deadline for preparations to be begin for a late May 2020 election. The much respected Director General of Health Services Dr Anil Jaasinghe also seemed to make remarks that the virus had been contained in the island.
Subsequently, claiming it had sought advice from experts, the President decided to open universities across the country by May 11, 2020. The move has angered the university teachers trade union, which believes the move to reopen in premature in light of the current pandemic situation. By April 20th the Government has decided that BOI companies will recommence operations and the public sector will also gradually go back to work by the same date. The president is also expected to order schools to reopen by mid-May.
All this, Rajapaksa confidants say, is aimed at forcing normalcy to give the Elections Commission “no excuse” but to hold the election which is what the President’s Secretary also told the Commission in a reply to its 1st April letter.
Authoritative Government sources said that the President will trade a 45% turnout of the vote in exchange for an early election. Once the election is over, the shutdown will go back into place, as infection rates will likely skyrocket once the country reopens for one month.
This is not the first time amidst this pandemic that Gotabaya Rajapaksa has put his electoral prospects ahead of the well-being of the citizens. He scoffed at the virus less than a week before he declared islandwide curfew saying “can we shut the country down because of a corona?” simply because he wanted to ensure the nominations process for the parliamentary election was complete. Even if the election was delayed beyond April 25 2020 the President sought to ensure that the nomination list would remain the same thereby ensuring that his main opposition UNP would be contesting as separate entities causing a serious dent in the party’s electoral prospects.
But a delay beyond June 2020 could cost the SLPP dearly as incumbency sets in and the economy, which was already struggling before the Covid-19 crisis heads for serious trouble inflating living costs and forcing the Government to impose heavy taxes in order to meet revenue targets. In the face of a looming cash crunch, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has already been forced to rescind massive tax cuts made soon after his election as president, even reimposing PAYE taxation at old rates in violation of his own polls promises. Furthermore the Government’s spate of exchange controls, coupled with desperate pleas from the Central Bank for overseas Sri Lankans and others to park money in the country as a “goodwill gesture” have made investors jittery. In another remarkable twist to stop the economic freefall, the Government appeared to be offering to turn Sri Lanka’s financial system into a tax haven, offering “investors” special deposits that would not be subject to taxes, exchange controls and a no-questions asked policy on those accounts.
At the beginning of the Corona virus crisis in Sri Lanka president Rajapaksa also slashed the prices of dhal and tin fish in a move he said would reduce the financial burden on the people, but last week, the prices shot back up after the Government withdrew the subsidy on these two items to all but state-owned retailers and cooperative chains.
Colombo Telegraph learns that top businessmen aligned to the Gotabaya Rajapksa Administration are urging the President to lift the curfew and reopen the country because their companies have taken serious financial blows during the shutdown. The businessmen have given the President an April 20 deadline. (by Chamika Madiwake)