A clear verdict for Democracy | Sunday Observer

A clear verdict for Democracy

7 June, 2020

The Supreme Court judgment last week on the dissolution of Parliament is a vindication of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s actions. The Court verdict made it clear that President Rajapaksa had acted within the confines of the Constitution in dissolving Parliament after it had run its course for four and a half years.

The Apex Court had also in principle accepted the argument that a ‘dead’ Parliament cannot be recalled back to life. In the backdrop of the massive mandate given to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on November 16, 2019, it is clear that the ‘old’ Parliament had clearly lost its mandate to govern. Recalling it would have made a mockery of that popular mandate given to President Rajapaksa.

While there indeed are provisions to recall a dissolved Parliament in the Constitution, the qualifying factor is a dire emergency. Since the Coronavirus was controlled to a great extent within our borders, there was no such emergency to justify recalling the old Parliament. While it is true that Parliament has power and control over State finances, the President has the authority to use funds from the Consolidated Fund until such time an election is held. In fact, just last week, the President allocated Rs. 1 trillion for various services and development projects from the Fund.

But a country cannot go on forever without an effective sitting Parliament. This has indeed been the position of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. They have been pushing for General Elections to be held as soon as possible subject to health sector clearance and guidelines. For whatever reason, certain political parties and civil society groups have been trying to block or postpone the elections. As Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa said recently, normally it is Governments that try to evade elections while the Opposition demands them. In this instance, these roles have been reversed, he said.

The Opposition’s claim that elections should be held only when the virus is completely controlled or eliminated does not hold water since many local and international health experts predict the virus will be with us for at least two more years. Even if a vaccine is made available at least by this time next year, not all the seven billion people in the world will get it at once. Thus we are possibly looking beyond a two-year window until the Coronavirus is eradicated, if ever.

It would be a crime to deny the voters their franchise for such a long period of time. Now that the country has been opened and normalcy has been more or less restored, there can be no more excuses to delay the General Election beyond the 60-70 days required by the Election Commission for logistical arrangements and for political parties to campaign (The polls date is likely to be announced on Monday by the NEC).

Besides, the Director General of Health Services has provided very clear guidelines on holding the election under the present circumstances, including the deployment of health personnel at all polling stations, temperature checks and hand wash facilities.  The only practical problem we can foresee is the identification of voters with face masks, but this should be a matter of asking them to remove it momentarily for the presiding officials to check against the ID card.  

Sri Lanka is not the only country going through this experience. Eight other countries including South Korea have successfully held elections, sometimes in worse Coronavirus conditions than ours. The polls held in South Korea have been hailed as the most successful electoral exercise ever held there. Our health and electoral officials should study this model and take any appropriate lessons to suit the local context and conditions. Neighbouring India and Singapore are also planning to hold elections soon and our officials could get in touch with them too.

Now it is up to political parties to instill discipline in their supporters and activists to ensure that they do not violate social distancing and hygiene norms at any time. Huge rallies are unlikely and even pocket meetings have been restricted to 30-50 people seated or standing according to social distancing rules. Perhaps this will bring politicians closer to the people than on previous occasions, when they could only be seen from a distant stage.

Political parties will also look to the electronic media to take their message across, but one wonders whether airtime can be given to hundreds of candidates within a limited time frame of two months or so. Social media is the other obvious platform, but this is fraught with danger due to the possibilities for malicious mudslinging, outright fabrications, fake news, deep fake videos, trolls and targeted ads bearing false accusations against opponents.  Political parties will necessarily have to ‘police’ the content posted by their candidates to avoid such ramifications.

This is also an ideal opportunity to ponder why our elections authorities have seemingly abandoned the idea of electronic voting, which would have made things easier for all, despite earlier demonstrations and commitments. In some countries, it is even possible to vote online from the comfort of your own home. Going forward, serious thought must be given to this idea.

The one lesson we should learn from the present experience is that we should not let an invisible virus defeat us and take our freedom away. An election is perhaps the supreme expression of freedom and now we have a chance to savour it again. It is now our duty to vote and reinforce our democratic ideals.