SPECIAL REPORT : Part 314March 23, 2020, 12:00 pm
March 17, Presidential Secretariat: Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa requesting President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to evacuate Sri Lankan pilgrims stranded in India.(pic courtesy PMD)
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Coronavirus aka Covid-19 has delivered a deadly blow to the high profile Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna’s (SLPP) bid to secure a parliamentary majority required to repeal the controversial 19th Amendment or bring in far reaching amendments to it. Throughout the 2019 presidential campaign and after, the SLPP, and those aligned with it, repeatedly vowed to either do away or amend the 19th Amendment.
The SLPP needs a staggering two-thirds majority, at the next parliamentary poll, to achieve its primary objective.
The UNP enacted the 19th Amendment, with the overwhelming backing of the SLFP, in early 2015. Addressing constitutional problems caused by the 19th Amendment had been the SLPP’s top priority though its members voted for it at the behest of the then President Maithripala Sirisena. But, the postponement of the parliamentary election appeared to have caused quite a setback.
Election Commission (EC) Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya, on Thursday, March 19, blamed Covid-19 for indefinite postponement of the parliamentary election, originally scheduled for April 25th.
An unprecedented EC decision
Deshapriya announced the postponement on March 19 soon after the 90-minute period allocated for objections in respect of nominations lapsed. The voter turnout at the next parliamentary election, on a new date, can take quite a hard hit due to depressed public mood. Major political parties, the EC, as well as those interested in free and fair elections, will have to undertake a major project to encourage the public to vote. Political parties seemed to be unaware of the public mood.
The EC, on March 16, reached consensus on the postponement in case of deterioration of the Covid-19 situation though a decision was made not to reveal the move until the finalization of nominations, three days later. EC member, President’s Counsel Nalin Abeysekera, hadn’t been present at the meeting though he previously supported a call to put off the poll.
EC members, Prof. Ratnajeevan Hoole and President’s Counsel Nalin Abeysekera, and the top election staff, in charge of the provinces, demanded the postponement whereas the EC Chairman sought to delay a decision. However, finally the March 16 meeting paved the way for a consensus on postponement. The staff asserted that the current situation made it impossible to have the parliamentary election, as scheduled, due to severe disruptions. The staff pointed out that those public servants and the military couldn’t perform the roles expected of them due to the Covid-19 crisis.
The staff, in no uncertain terms said that as pointed out at the previous meeting with them on March 11, the EC couldn’t go ahead with the election. They requested the EC to warn President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and to seek a later date for the polls. The staff queried as to why the EC Chairman and his two co-members, Nalin Abeysekere and Ratnajeevan Hoole, took opposing views. Hoole and Abeysekera also agreed with the staff that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa should be immediately briefed of the ground situation. The Chairman, having strongly disagreed, subsequently agreed to bring the situation to the notice of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Hence, the President was informed that the parliamentary poll couldn’t be held on April 25, as previously planned, though the EC lacked the authority to put off nominations. Although the President could have exercised the power to rescind his own gazette announcement to halt the electoral process, he declined to do so, finally leading to consensus of unprecedented strategy. The EC decided to accept nominations, as announced, and then gazette the names of candidates and polling booths, as required in terms of Section 24(1) of the Parliamentary Elections Act of 1981. Once this was done, the EC received the authority to postpone polling, under Section 24(3) of the Parliamentary Elections Act of 1981, which provided for postponement of polls "due to any emergency or unforeseen circumstances" in any district, but can be used to postpone polling in all districts. The new poll date has to be "not earlier than the fourteenth day" after the postponement order. To do this postponement, nominations have to close to know who the candidates are to be able to publish the gazette under section 24(1).
A jittery administration
Since the postponement of the poll, a jittery government was compelled to declare curfew from Friday March 20, 6 pm to Monday March 23, 6 am. The announcement was made Friday morning. On Saturday, March 21, the government extended the curfew in the districts of Colombo, Gampaha and Puttalam, till Tuesday, March 24, 6 am. In the three districts, where the curfew was extended, it was to be re-imposed at 2 pm, on the same day. Subsequently, the entire Northern Province, comprising five administrative districts, too, was placed under curfew, till March 24, 6 am. Army Commander Lt. Gen. Shavendra Silva declared that the North was placed under extended curfew as a Sri Lankan pastor, from Switzerland, who conducted a special service at, Ariyalai, in the Jaffna peninsula, tested positive for Covid-19. The pastor had been tested positive, after he returned to Switerland. The rapidly changing Covid-19 situation meant the original SLPP operation wouldn’t be possible now. In addition to the change in the date, the SLPP should now take the post-corona public mood into consideration.
The high profile SLPP political project has suffered a debilitating setback, regardless of what its leadership may say. In the run-up to the commencement of the week-long nominations period, on March 12, the SLPP spokesmen insisted that the situation was under control. They remained confident until the very end. However, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa acknowledged, on March 17 morning, the EC could take a decision on parliamentary election, after the acceptance of nominations.
The Island learns that the EC informed President Gotabaya Rajapaksa of its March 16 decision before the President addressed members of those assigned to tackle Covid-19.
The SLPP strongly believed that it could exploit the overwhelming victory achieved by Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the Nov 2019 presidential poll to secure a runaway victory. With the UNP in disarray, a very comfortable SLPP victory seemed a certainty. SLPP bosses were so sure; they disregarded a pre-presidential poll agreement to contest the general election, under a common symbol. The SLFP, in spite of being humiliated, had no option but to contest under the SLPP’s flower bud symbol.
Paying huge price for negligence
The incumbent government cannot absolve itself of the responsibility for the delay in taking sufficient precautions. Sri Lanka detected its first corona affected person, a 40-year-old Chinese woman tourist, on January 25. The detection was made at the BIA as she was leaving the country having arrived on January 19, 2020. The Chinese coronavirus patient, who had received treatment at the Infectious Diseases Hospital (IDH), Angoda, was discharged on Wednesday, February 19, after being declared cured. The Chinese, who had arrived from the badly affected Hubei province, was tested positive on January 26. In the absence of proper understanding of the threat posed by Covid-19, the government unnecessarily highlighted the Chinese woman leaving IDH. Health Minister Pavitra Wanniarachchi captured both print and electronic media attention by hugging the Chinese woman.
The GMOA repeatedly alleged that the government ignored its initial warnings to take immediate precautions. Hell-bent on somehow having parliamentary election, as scheduled, the SLPP went ahead with its plans. As a political party, it cannot be faulted for seeking political advantage due to the unprecedented split in the UNP, with Sajith Premadasa-led rebel group taking the upper hand. Most members of the ex-parliamentary group switched their allegiance to Premadasa. Finalization of nominations ensured that at whatever time the parliamentary election took place, the split in the UNP is permanent with Premadasa’s lot contesting under the ‘telephone’ symbol, whereas Ranil Wickremesinghe’s loyalists’ were using the ‘elephant’ symbol.
Focus on SLPP strategy
Onetime External Affairs Minister and SLPP, Chairman Prof. G.L. Peiris, recently discussed the formation of the party and its objectives. Among those present, on the occasion, were Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and SLPP strategist Basil Rajapaksa. Amidst severe warnings over the Covid-19 threat, Prof. Peiris, on Thursday (March 12), said that a magnificent victory achieved by wartime Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the 2019 presidential election remained incomplete until the parliamentary power was secured by the SLPP.
Prof. Peiris said so addressing a book launch organized by Pivithuru Hela Urumaya (PHU) leader and former lawmaker, Udaya Gammanpila, at the Sri Sambuddha Jayanthi Mandiraya, Thunmulla.
Pointing out that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa hadn’t been able to proceed as desired, Prof. Peiris said that parliamentary power was nothing but a prerequisite before a proper action plan could be implemented.
The SLPP Chairman recalled how the UNP-led Opposition prevented the UPFA from receiving parliamentary endorsement for a new Vote-on-Account.
At the time of the dissolution of parliament, on March 02, the UPFA had the support of 89 lawmakers.
At the onset of his speech, Prof. Peiris compared the circumstances leading to the formation of the SLFP, in the 1950s, and the SLPP, six and half decades later. The SLFP and the SLPP came into being due to the failure on the part of major political parties to represent the interest of various groups.
The SLPP emerged, in 2016, at the expense of the SLFP, the gathering was told. Prof. Peiris examined the emergence of the SLFP and the SLPP at the expense of the UNP and the SLFP, respectively.
Prof. Peiris said that just two days after Mahinda Rajapaksa’s defeat, at the January 08, 2015, presidential election, the then MP Udaya Gammanpila urged supporters not to lose heart. Prof. Peiris quoted Gammanpila as having appealed to them to retain their spirit and the future would be theirs.
Prof. Peiris underscored the importance of the events leading to the formation of the SLPP in late 2016, following the UPFA defeat at the last parliamentary election in August 2015.
Prof. Peiris recalled how Gammanpila on January 13, 2015 declared Mahinda Rajapaksa as their next prime ministerial candidate, and Gamini Lokuge meeting the PHU leader on the following day to pledge his support to a campaign meant to bring Mahinda Rajapaksa back. The formation of the Joint Opposition took place in the wake of Udaya Gammanpila, Wimal Weerawansa and Vasudeva Nanayakkara meeting MEP leader Dinesh Gunawardena at the latter’s residence on January 17, 2015, Prof. Peiris said.
In the wake of the JO’s formation, the outfit organized a major rally at Nugegoda on Feb 18, 2015, Prof. Peiris said, declaring that they were able to challenge the government within weeks after the Mahinda Rajapaksa’s defeat.
Prof. Peiris pointed out that though the general belief was that a new government couldn’t be challenged in its first year, the JO took on the new administration within weeks after the presidential poll. Prof. Peiris said that the Nugegoda rally was followed by public meetings in Kandy, Kurunegala, Ratnapura, Anuradhapura, Galle and Matara where the operation gathered momentum.
The outcome of the August 2015 general election prompted the leadership to explore ways and means of addressing the grievances of the electorate, Prof. Peiris said. "We handed over our application to the Election Commission on Oct 21, 2016, received the EC’s recognition on Oct 28, 2016, and the SLPP came into being on Nov 01, 2016," Prof. Peiris said, pointing out how the new party sent shock waves through the established political parties at the Feb 10, 2018 Local Government polls.
There couldn’t be another instance of a new political party achieving 71 per cent of the vote at a countrywide election, Prof. Peiris said, recalling severe difficulties experienced by them before the application was submitted.
Prof. Peiris said that once an irate Basil Rajapaksa raised his voice during a discussion. SLPP strategist Basil Rajapaksa declared that whatever the difficulties and opposition he would definitely establish the new party, if he had the blessings of Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The SLPP’s achievement, at the 2019 November 16, presidential election, was unique, Prof. Peiris said. Basil Rajapaksa’s played a pivotal role in the entire operation that brought the political opposition to its knees, Prof. Peiris said.
Alleging that the UPFA suffered defeat at the 2015 August general election as a result of internal manipulations, Prof. Peiris pointed out that in spite of treachery, the UPFA secured 95 seats – just 11 short of the UNP-led coalition.
Early this week, Basil Rajapaksa, at a book launch in Gampaha, said that they would forgive those responsible for such manipulations but definitely not forget.
Prof. Peiris said that political stability couldn’t be achieved unless the SLPP won the next poll handsomely. The SLPP Chairman said that there was no doubt about securing a simple majority though their aim was a two-thirds majority required to effect far reaching constitutional changes.
Crucial period ignored
Obviously, the top SLPP leadership never felt the necessity to examine the situation closely or the possibility in corona causing the parliamentary poll being put off. The three-day 141 Royal-Thomian, too, started at the SSC grounds, on the same day. The government never explained as to why the ‘Battle of the Blues’ was allowed. Royal-Thomian continued in spite of the England tour of Sri Lanka being postponed, on March 12, due to the corona crisis, not only here, but in the UK, as well. The ‘Battle of the Blues’ attracted media attention after a SriLankan Airline employee, who had been at the SSC, was tested positive for Covid-19. Many an eyebrow was raised over President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s March 17 claim that his advice to call off the match wasn’t heeded. Who could have given the green light for ‘Battle of the Blues.’?
The government also remained silent in the wake of accusations that a group of pilgrims who had returned from India was allowed to leave the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) without being quarantined. Former Western Province Governor Azath S. Salley as well as Dr. Naveen Zoysa, on behalf of the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA), flayed the government for allowing the returnees to covertly leave. Dr. Zoysa warned the government of dire consequences pointing out the failure on the part of those responsible to act sensibly. Government spokesmen never responded to those accusations.
It would be interesting to know when Sri Lanka stopped allowing groups of pilgrims to leave for India. The failure to halt organized pilgrimages compelled the government to deploy special SriLankan flights to evacuate those stranded in India, in different locations. Sri Lanka completed evacuations from India this week.