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Even for a country that coped with and ended a near thirty year long civil war, the Covid-19 pandemic has posed an unprecedented challenge, not merely in the area of public health, but also economically of a magnitude that has the potential to cause significant social upheaval. The backbone of Sri Lanka’s economy has been our expatriate worker remittances, tourism and the apparel industry. The global nature of the Covid-19 epidemic, styled a global pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO), would mean that even after an end to the lock downs not just in Sri Lanka, but also in host countries for our expatriate workers, tourist originating nations and the apparel markets of the USA and the EU, the continuation of social distancing guidelines, virus spread mitigating measures and economic disruption may well cause these industries to not pick up to levels seen in prior years, at least for quite a while. This means serious economic pain and unemployment in Sri Lanka, resulting in social tensions.
As April 25th, the scheduled date for the parliamentary elections, declared with the proclamation dissolving parliament, came and went, the Elections Commission provisionally differed the election to 20th June 2020 and giving every indicator that public health authorities and the Covid-19 pandemic situation rather than any other factor would determine the date of holding the election. In that context, a looming constitutional conundrum has arisen, as pointed out, late last month, by the Elections Commission to the Secretary to the President. In those now well-known missives, the independent Elections Commission (EC) brought to the attention of the Secretary to the President, that relevant legislation required that Parliament must be convened three months after dissolution, i.e. by 2nd June, subsequent to the 2nd of March dissolution and the public health situation did not permit the conduct of a parliamentary election before this date. The EC recommended seeking the opinion of the Supreme Court regarding the situation. Even as this article is being penned, there are attempts at persuading the government to withdraw the gazette, which prematurely dissolved parliament and to reconvene the same, to enable all the three arms of the Sri Lankan State, the executive, the legislature and the judiciary, to function effectively to create a unified non-partisan national response to a truly national, apolitical public health and economic challenge. The constitutional and legal provisions of the arguments regarding the dissolution of parliament, the absence of an approved budget, the violation of the approved debt ceiling, amid other legal issues could be better discussed in a different forum and may well end up decided by the Superior Courts, as indeed the constitutional issues of the October 2018 constitutional revolution was decided and resolved judicially.
However, this article seeks to examine some of the public policy and governance, as opposed to the legal issues, arising from the premature dissolution of parliament and the absence of a functioning legislature during this period of the national fight against the Covid-19. Firstly history, political science and common sense teaches us that facing a common enemy is best done in a united manner, as a common front and together, rather than divided, in factions and in a polarized manner. Accordingly, it would be wise for the government to seek to include the opposition parties and create some bi-partisan consensus on dealing with this very non-political public health issue and its economic and social fall out. A process best done in through the august assembly of Parliament.
On the contrary, the SLPP Administration, having recently won an election in November last year and with every confidence of winning the forthcoming parliamentary election, perceives little or no need for either any opposition cooperation or support. There is little love lost or trust reposed in their political opponents. When the idea of re-summoning parliament and seeking to extend the vote on account, if not pass a budget and other measures aimed at regularizing public finance beyond end April 2020, were first mooted, there were concerns in the highest echelons of the Government, that its minority status in parliament would make it vulnerable when seeking parliamentary approval and possibly open it up to defeat on a money bill and be ousted from office in the legislature. The SLPP had not forgotten the lessons of October 2018, where its minority Administration, sworn in by then President Sirisena, twice consecutively lost motions of no confidence in Parliament.
Avoid politicization and rights violations
Opinion surveys, Sri Lanka’s substitute for statistically accurate opinion polls supposedly shows very high approval ratings for the government’s response to the covid-19 epidemic. In fact, this is unsurprising, since the social distancing measures via a currently five week and increasing curfew has indeed been “flattening our curve” and the only real criticism of the government is that it dissolved parliament despite the looming virus pandemic and delayed the start of the fight against Covid-19 by quite a bit to accommodate the dissolution of parliament and the acceptance of nominations for the general elections on 19th March, with the curfew being declared the very next day on the 20th. The question being asked from government leaders around the world, is also relevant in Sri Lanka, which is why were not these measures taken earlier, when the pandemic warnings were clear to national authorities, though not to the general public.
Leader of the Opposition and Samagi Jana Balawegaya leader Sajith Premadasa has called on the government to not politicize the distribution of relief supplies, including the Rupees five thousand relief payment to needy families, resulting from the fact that local government politicians mostly from the governing SLPP have been included in the committees nominated to decide on beneficiaries. A hitherto unheard-of practice in the distribution of relief supplies from the Government in times of national emergency. This in a situation where to the contrary, the opposition Tamil National Alliance (TNA) controlled local councils in the North have been prevented by the Government through the Governor, in even using their own funds to provide relief for their constituencies. A measure that has been widely criticized in the North. Additionally, the Opposition has raised issue about the alleged harassment of social media activists and the detention of an Attorney at Law amid alleged serious due process lapses on the part of the relevant authorities. These are issues best avoided when facing a crucial national challenge. One in which we are all better served, if we face it together, to more effectively deal with the issues. The approach in international diplomacy and global problem solving of consultation, cooperation and collaboration, would just as effectively serve us domestically as well as internationally.
(The writer served as Advisor, Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 2016/17)