When a Virus Floors Franchise
What was being speculated, in political circles, for two weeks or so, has come to pass. The general election, scheduled for 25 April, 2020, has been put off indefinitely, on account of the spread of COVID-19, and the attendant problems.
It is a supreme irony that the SLPP, which used to flay the UNP-led yahapalana government for postponing local government and Provincial Council elections, has had to put of a general election, albeit under different circumstances. It was the UNP-led Opposition that asked for the polls postponement in question, but the irony of it may not be lost on the discerning public.
Legal opinion was divided on the powers of the Election Commission (EC) as regards polls postponements. There were three schools of thought about postponing parliamentary polls. One was that the dissolved Parliament had to be re-convened to resolve that the general election be postponed until the COVID-19 threat was over. A prominent proponent of this view was former Minister of Justice Wijeyadasa Rajapaksa, PC, who said that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa could facilitate a polls postponement by causing Parliament to meet again by invoking constitutional provisions in respect of Public Security. It was only Parliament that could decide to put off a scheduled general election, he argued.
Another school of thought was that the general election could not be postponed, on any grounds. Senior lawyer Manohara de Silva was of that view. He was quoted by The Island newspaper, on 19 March, as having said that the Constitution was silent on the postponement of a general election. Once Parliament was dissolved and a general election scheduled, the electoral process could not be reversed, he maintained. But given the enormity of the COVID-19 threat, it might be possible to invoke the doctrine of necessity to put of the polls, he argued.
The other school of thought asserted that the election had to be held, as scheduled come hell or high water.
The EC proved all these schools of thought wrong by postponing the general election under its own steam. It had to wait till the nomination process, which had got underway, was over to announce its decision. Opinion may be divided on its decision, but there is a consensus among all political parties that the time is not conducive to an electoral contest as mass gatherings had to be prevented in view of the fast-spreading virus.
Polls observers, the media and the general public were also convinced that the country should not go to the polls at the present juncture. So, the EC action has gone down well with all stakeholders, and none of them will challenge it.
Nominations and lockdowns
The Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) and independent medical specialists called for shutdowns, about a week ago, as there was a marked increase in the number of COVID-19 infections being detected in the country, but to no avail.
The government came under fire for not placing the public wellbeing over its desire to secure a two-thirds majority in Parliament. In fact, it was biding its time until the nomination process was over. Its battle plan was clear. It wanted the two factions of the UNP to hand in their nominations separately so that the chances of their coming together would be zero.
On 19 March, the UNP led by Ranil Wickremesinghe and the UNP dissidents in the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) led by UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa crossed the Rubicon by handing in their nominations separately. The general election will have to be held on the basis of the nomination lists already submitted. Immediately after the announcement of the polls postponement, the government opted for a countrywide lockdown by way of a curfew. The GMOA got it right when it said as for lockdown, the government was two weeks late.
The chances of the warring faction of the UNP making peace are remote. Sajith is contesting from Colombo, where Ranil has always obtained the highest number of preferential votes without much effort. This time around, Ranil will have to vie with Sajith though they are contesting from two different parties. If Sajith polls more preferential votes than Ranil, he will stake claims to the UNP leadership. If Ranil secures the higher number of preferential votes, he will be able to consolidate his power in the party. Their stakes in the contest are extremely high.
Sajith has most of the UNP heavyweights in the fray in the Colombo District as well as elsewhere, and the UNP has had to look for candidates so much so that it has fielded even former Minister Mervyn Silva, who is a total political liability. He is contesting from the Anuradhapura District.
When Silva was in the Rajapaksa government and accused of carrying out attacks on the then Opposition and the media, the UNP was out for his scalp. His candidacy is bound to alienate a lot of UNP voters.
The moment of truth for govt.
The SLPP leaders are in seventh heaven because the UNP is now in total disarray. The JVP is too weak to pose a formidable challenge to the government. Most of the other political parties and independent groups in the fray, are also-rans. Their aim is not to win seats as such but to secure a National List slot or two each. But it won’t be plain sailing for the government.
What really made the SLPP’s victory possible, at the last presidential election, was the Easter Sunday carnage, which sent the UNP-led government reeling, in April 2019. The terror attacks made national security, which is the SLPP leaders’ métier, take precedence over all other issues. SLPP presidential candidate, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, campaigned on a national security platform, to all intents and purposes, and scored an impressive win, bringing down the UNP government.
Now, the SLPP government is faced with an unprecedented crisis which it never bargained for, and its success at the next parliamentary election hinges on its ability to beat coronavirus. It is faced with an uphill task and the measures it has had to adopt to counter the threat are likely to be unpopular. It is, therefore, fighting shy of resorting to drastic action in trying to beat the virus. Unfortunately for it, the only way to neutralize coronavirus is to adopt the same measure as China, which has effectively curbed the spread of the virus. No new infections have been reported from the Wuhan City, the cradle of COVID, and the specially set up makeshift hospitals to treat coronavirus cases are being dismantled. The Chinese Community Party does not have to worry about the political consequences of its action, for it alone can win ‘elections’ in that country. But the SLPP finds itself between a rock and a hard place.
It never rains but it pours, as they say. The COVID-19 crisis has taken its toll on the Sri Lankan rupee, which is tumbling at a rapid pace. The US dollar was selling at Rs. 189, at the time of writing. The rupee depreciation will send the general price level up because the country is heavily dependent on imports, as is common knowledge.
Saudi Arabia’s oil price war with Russia, etc. and its decision to keep the tap running, causing the fuel prices plummet, have stood the SLPP government in good stead, but increases in other imports will set off gains from low crude prices. The government has made a sensible decision to maintain the local fuel prices at the present level and utilizing the profits made from the decrease in the cost of oil imports to meet other expenses and grant some relief to the public. But the people expect a substantial fuel price cut, and the Opposition is also demanding it. There’s the rub. The government will have a hard time explaining to the public why it has decided against lowering oil prices.
China has come to the government’s rescue with a bailout package in the form of a 500-million-USD concessionary loan. This may be considered the deus ex machina of sorts, but the question is whether this amount will be sufficient to cushion the shock from COVID-19 crisis, the attendant economic losses and the tumble of the rupee.
Its sharp political and economic vicissitudes have taken the wind out of the SLPP’s sails.