By Jehan Perera –
The spread of the Coronavirus is an international calamity. Even though an island, Sri Lanka has not been able to insulate itself from the global impact of the pandemic. The country had an opportunity to miminise the impact of the pandemic if it had acted earlier. It had an early warning when, at the end of January, a Chinese tourist developed symptoms of the virus while in the country and was treated successfully. This incident could have set off alarm bells that others too might be similarly infected. The rescue operation by Sri Lankan Airlines in early February to fly into the heart of the pandemic in Wuhan to bring back Sri Lankan students stranded was hailed as a heroic act. It could have been used to rally the entire country to face the looming catastrophe.
Unfortunately, it took more than 6 weeks for the government to take the necessary steps to seal off the country from the rest of the world by closing its international airport to incoming passenger traffic. The responsibility or blame for this cannot be placed solely on the government though government leaders are expected to lead and be in front of their people. The failure of Sri Lankan society as a whole, at least at its more prosperous and formally educated level, was seen in the failure of school and government authorities to put a stop to the cricket big matches that took place during this period even after the regular school system had been shut down due to the Coronavirus crisis.
The failure of stop festivities that brought tens of thousands of the country’s elite society came together in the pavilions of cricket stadiums may have been due to complacency that what was happening in other parts of the world, could not happen in the island. Sri Lanka was spared the SARS epidemic that ravaged other parts of Asia. However, there appears to have been another key factor that delayed the governmental response. This was the declared and resolute intention of the government leadership to proceed with the general elections as soon as possible. It was with that intention in mind that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa dissolved parliament six months ahead of schedule in terms of the constitutional powers vested in him and set the general elections for April 25.
It is noteworthy that the government waited until after the nominations closed for general elections to commence the lockdown of the country. The government’s determination to follow up with the nomination process would be due to the political advantage that it anticipated by holding the general elections as soon as possible. On the one hand, the government is hobbled by not having a majority in parliament. While President Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the presidential election in November 2019 with a significant majority, parliament continues to represent the balance of political forces that existed back in August 2015 when the last general elections were held.
The second reason for the government’s interest in holding the general elections as soon as possible would be to take advantage of the division within the UNP which is its main rival for political power. With most of the UNP parliamentarians joining the SJB, which is headed by the UNP’s deputy leader Sajith Premadasa, neither party is likely to do as well as the UNP would have if it had succeeded in resolving its leadership crisis that led to the break. This would be advantageous to the government, and to their hope of obtaining a 2/3 majority in parliament that would give them the unilateral power to change the constitution. Until the nominations process was underway both the president and the elections authorities took the position that the elections would go ahead as scheduled.
While the logic of holding general elections soon made sense from a partisan political perspective, it is not justifiable that the desire to seize the moment for political gain overrode national safety considerations. When the government decided to wait for the period of nominations for elections to end before declaring curfew, the country lost valuable weeks in which it could have taken decisive action to halt the spread of the Coronavirus. This delay will compound the difficulties that the government, and the rest of society, will have to pay for the problem to be tackled in a systematic and thorough manner.
Fortunately, Sri Lankans have had the experience of sudden curfews being declared due to the many decades of war and terrorism. There is also a willingness to concede individual rights to the needs of the collective especially when the government is behind the restriction. Nevertheless the present curfew, which is for four continuous days has been unprecedented and could have been done with more forward planning. The sudden declaration of curfew has created difficulties in commercial and personal lives. It will put pressure on the country’s social welfare system and economy. There are large numbers of people who earn by the day. After four days of being confined to their homes by the curfew they will be hard pressed to store up for the days of lockdown that lie ahead when the curfew is relaxed today for a few hours. In this context, social discontent and unrest are bound to spread. The government needs to consider direct economic assistance to the poorer sections of the population.
Sri Lankan citizens need to cooperate with the government authorities they have at this time. Many would believe that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is the best leader to handle the present situation. Under his leadership, the government has been making maximum use of the military to handle the emergency situation. This should not be viewed as a militarization of the country but as a temporary phenomenon. Due to the decades of war and counter terror operations, the Sri Lankan military has the resources, the training and experience to handle multiple crises. The leadership that President Rajapaksa gave to the military during the time of war has instilled trust and respect for him in the general population, which was reflected in the outcome of last November’s presidential election.
The days and months ahead are going to be difficult and challenging ones. The Election Commission has bowed to the inevitable and indefinitely postponed the general elections set for April 25. But parliament has been dissolved since March 2 by the president. The democratic system requires a democratically elected president to be supported, checked and balanced by a democratically elected parliament. This is not only a matter of checks and balances but also of sharing responsibility. With the entire world in crisis, satisfying the competing claims of different sections of the people will incur the wrath of many sections if not all. It is better that the responsibility should be shared. It is important that the president should summon an all-party meeting to discuss the consensual way forward. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s meeting with party leaders today may be the prelude to this necessary step.