By R. Hariharan –
The COVID-19 pandemic has derailed President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s carefully crafted plan to hold the parliamentary elections on April 25 to win two-thirds majority in parliament elections to repeal 19th Amendment (19A) to the Constitution which curbed presidential powers. In the face of the pandemic threat, the Election Commission (EC) was left with no other option but to indefinitely postpone the election, though it took the decision only on March 19 after deadline for filing nominations ended. The government which had ordered the closure of the schools a week earlier, considered it politically expedient to go ahead with the election and did not agree to postpone it.
The President and the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) had repeatedly vowed to do away with the 19A. After President Gotabaya’s victory, the chances of the SLPP and its allies winning two-thirds majority brightened after power struggle between the main opposition United National Party (UNP)-leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and Deputy leader Sajith Premadasa wrecked the UNP-led coalition. After peace parleys failed, Premadasa broke ranks and filed his nomination on the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) front ticket. He is supported by the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, All Ceylon Makkal Congress, Jathika Hela Urumaya and the National Democratic Front.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic, which has grown into a major existential threat has played havoc with the peoples’ normal life. So fighting the pandemic has become the urgent national priority for the President. The virus threat has skewed President Gotabaya’s political pitch. Moreover, its fall out has become a major challenge for him. The voters are more likely to judge President Gotabaya and SLPP upon how effectively the government handles the virus threat, rather than the past record of Rajapaksas in eliminating the LTTE threat.
According to Sri Lanka Health Promotion Bureau data as on March 31, 132 confirmed cases (including 114 active cases) have been reported in the country. So far there had been 2 deaths and 16 recovered cases. The first case was reported on January 27, when a Chinese tourist from China was found to have high fever after screening on arrival at Colombo airport. However, it was from March 10, virus affected cases rapidly increased to current levels, with 10 cases reported in one day on March 31. At this rate, health officials expect the virus cases to peak around April 11.
The President’s immediate priority is combating the virus threat on three fronts: curb spread of the virus by taking holistic measures to enforce stringent action to prevent the spread of infection and quarantine and treat those infected and manage the adverse financial, economic and political impact on society. Fortunately for him, Sri Lanka has a fairly well organized public health system, unlike other South Asian countries.
However, he has to manage misinformation and fake news about virus attack and government measures, which have dramatically increased in the last two weeks. Unfortunately, politicians as well as religious leaders seem to be oblivious of the danger of using the virus threat to garner advantage.
The government has come out a slew of measures to combat COVID-19 threat. After initial glitches in maintaining supplies and controlling crowding of people, the President has announced the formation of a 40-member Task Force (TF) under Basil Rajapaksa, designated as “Special Envoy.” The TF members include three provincial governors, Chief of Defence Staff and secretaries of important ministries. The TF has been entrusted with the task of streamlining a wide ranging of activities. These range from helping farmers resume agriculture activities, organizing public retail outlets to ensure supplies to cities and rural areas, coordinating the work of ports authority, immigration and customs authorities to ensure supply of essential imports including drugs as well as export of goods and ensuring effective health and sanitation work.
With these measures the government hopes to enforce restrictions on movement of people particularly after work from home was enforced from March 20 to April 3. Curfew has been imposed with selective slots to enable people to procure daily necessities and supply of essential products through door delivery channels. The government has declared Colombo, Gampaha and Kalutara as Corona high risk zones. President’s COVID Health and Social Security Fund has received Rs 140 million; more has been promised by industrial houses.
The cabinet has announced a wide range of fiscal and financial concessions effective from March 25 under which banks, finance companies and leasing companies are eligible to participate in extending support to their customers. The Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) has been called upon to impose a six months debt moratorium for tourism, apparel and industries affected by the coronavirus crisis immediately. It has also been asked to provide working capital at four percent interest The CBSL announced Rs 50 billion refinancing facility to help businesses, individuals and self-employed hit by COVID-19.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created a huge financial crisis for Sri Lanka to find money to tide over the financial crisis. To meet emergency sovereign crunch, Central Bank of Sri Lanka was able to raise to total of only $22.3 million on all bids out of $220 million Sri Lanka Development Bonds offered in auctions held during March 26-30. It showed the financial world was in no mood to lend in troubled times. In this context, it is interesting to note Sri Lanka and China Development Bank (CDB) have signed an agreement for a financing facility of US$ 500 million for development efforts.
According to the Senior Deputy Governor of the CBSL the Government was in the middle of negotiating a loan from the CDB which could be between $ 1-2 billion. Considering that Sri Lanka has to repay a total of $ 4.8 billion this year, with the next large payment of $ 1 billion due in September 2020, the financial heads must be wracking their brains to find a solution.
Sri Lanka has no parliament at present and the President is ruling with an interim cabinet. Many have questioned the powers of the President to sanction money under various heads without parliamentary oversight. This issue is likely to figure in the Supreme Court in the coming months.
In the midst of such stressful times, President Gotbaya shocked even some of his admirers by granting a presidential pardon to release a convicted death row prisoner former Staff Sergeant RM Sunil Rathnayake. He was sentenced to death for killing in cold blood nine Tamil civilians including three teenagers and a five-year old child in Mirusuvil near Jaffna on December 19, 2000. The Supreme Court had turned down Rathnayake’s last appeal against his death sentence last April.
The presidential action was condemned by the UN Human Rights Council representative; undoubtedly it was a slap in the face of the international body which had been demanding Sri Lanka fulfil its commitment made to the Council to account for alleged war crimes and human rights violations during the Eelam War.
Whatever be the reason for the President’s action, it has destroyed the first baby steps to establish ethnic credibility Sri Lanka had taken during the last decade after the war ended. It has reminded Sri Lanka Tamils the harsh reality of President Gotabaya’s words soon after he was elected: the Sinhala majority vote “allowed me to win the presidency….I knew that I could win with only the votes of the Sinhala majority. But I asked Tamils and Muslims to be part of my success. Their response was not what I expected. However, I urge them to join me to build one Sri Lanka.”
So clearly COVID-19 pandemic or not, President Gotabaya’s sights are still set on retaining his loyal Sinhala flock’s support for the coming general election.
*Col R Hariharan, a retired MI officer, served as the head of Intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka from 1987 to 90. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and South Asia Analysis Group