By Jehan Perera –
Sri Lanka will be open for business from Monday onwards. It will not be business as usual as the government has laid several conditions on those who will be permitted to leave their homes in the two most populous districts of Gampaha and Colombo. If the experience of the earlier opening that have taken place in the rest of the country is to be a guide, the general population will be cautious in making their entrance onto the roads and shops. In the case of Colombo in particular there is still some confusion about who is permitted to come out. The government would like to see the wheels of the economy begin to turn with a minimum of people-to-people that could spark off the possible second wave of infections. Making the danger of a spike even higher is the prevalence of asymptomatic Covid infected persons who do not show visible symptoms of illness.
After close to seven weeks of continuous curfew in the most Covid-affected Western Province and more than a month of curfew in other districts it is a cause for concern that the discovery of new Covid patients continues unabated at a rate of anywhere between 10-20 persons per day. When the government commenced its total lockdown in the latter half of March there was an expectation that the rigorous implementation of lockdown and 24 hour curfew would suffice to more or less completely contain the expansion of the virus. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s previous success in ending the three decade long war gave people the confidence that success was assured this time around too.
There is recognition that Sri Lanka’s performance is still considerably better than most other countries for which the government is given due credit. This may also be due to cultural traits that have proved to be advantageous in meeting the coronavirus threat. A significant finding in Sri Lanka is that the level of coronavirus infection amongst elderly people is much lower than in Western countries where the coronavirus is raging. This is possibly due to the more protective culture in which the younger generations continue to look after their elders in their own homes rather than have them live by themselves or in institutions. The fatality rate is also much lower in Sri Lanka which is possibly due to a greater degree of natural immunity and also the access that people at all levels of society have to the state-run health system.
Despite the inability of the government to defeat the coronavirus the feeling continues that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is the best equipped to tackle the problem. Not only do those who support him feel that the president is genuine in his desire to solve problems, they also like his decisiveness. The contrast to the last period of the last government, in which the president and parliament were at loggerheads is a sore memory with the general population. The catastrophe of the failure to heed prior warnings of the Easter Sunday bombings epitomized the absence of coherence of the previous government. This accounts for the popular discourse, which is also spread by sympathetic media, that President Rajapaksa should not be fettered by encumbrances such as a parliament in making decisions with his advisors. An example would be statement being circulated by the long established Swarnahansa Foundation, and other intellectuals, that calls for presidential rule rather than having a costly parliamentary election at the present time.
The Swarnahansa statement says that the cost of the elections has made them “Deeply concerned by the fact that this amount of money will have to be borrowed domestically or internationally from financial institutions drastically increasing the debt burden of the people making them debt ridden helpless poor citizens for several generations.” Another reason given for presidential rule is the danger posed by elections as a health hazard at this time. The caution with which the government is approaching the reopening of the country is an indication that society itself is not in a position to cope with the pressures that an election would bring. This is borne out by the government’s announcement that the reopening of the school system has been pushed back indefinitely from its originally envisaged target date of May 11.
The most burdensome part of the election would be the campaign. A total of 7452 candidates have paid their deposits and been registered as candidates for the general election. They will each wish to maximize their votes. It can reasonably be surmised that no sooner than the election campaign period starts they will seek to move among the people to convince them to become their voters. As campaigning by electronic and print media is very expensive they will seek to organize local level meetings. It is a reasonable assumption that in the course of a day each of them will have at least five pocket meetings. This will mean a minimum of about 35,000 election meetings a day throughout the country for the five weeks of the election campaign for a total that exceeds a million meetings. Each of these meetings could attract between 10 to100 people quite apart from the thousands who will attend the larger political rallies organised by the political parties themselves.
When the Election Commission fixed June 20 as the fresh date for elections it also stated that it would review the situation in due course. So far the election campaigning by the more than 7000 candidates has not begun in earnest. This is because the contestants are awaiting the Election Commission’s reconfirmation of the date of election. The Election Commission also needs to allocate to each of them their number in the list of candidates of their party which is necessary for preferential voting. It is only after the numbers are given that the election campaign will take off, with candidates putting up their posters up at every nook and corner and trying to meet the maximum number of potential voters at every moment.
However, with the likely postponement of the elections to a date when the coronavirus threat has substantially receded, which is in the indeterminate future, the question for the people is not whom to vote for but the form and substance of governance. At a discussion facilitated by the March 12 Movement former parliamentarian Sunil Handunnetti he put the issue across in stark terms. He said that on the one hand, the country could have a government in which the executive president would be the decision making authority. This could be justified due to the impossibility of conducting a general election at the present time. The alternative would be to bring back the institution of parliament into the decision making process.
Ex-parliamentarian Sunil Handunneththi made the relevant point that it was not the personal qualities of the 225 parliamentarians that mattered but the institution of parliament as an oversight body. He was supported in this by another ex-parliamentarian Eran Wickremaratne who pointed out that the overshooting of the debt ceiling by the current caretaker government required parliamentary ratification. There are reports of multi -billion dollar contracts being signed with foreign powers with no transparency. Those loans will one day have to be repaid with interest. Sri Lanka has already lost a port for 99 years. A parliament is needed for accountability, transparency and oversight. Parliamentary oversight is a means for holding the executive accountable for its actions and for ensuring that it implements policies in accordance with the laws and budget passed by the parliament.