The containment of Covid spread in Sri Lanka relative to other countries, including its immediate neigbours, had put the government on a strong footing to face the general elections on August 5. Since the curfew and lockdowns ended in mid-May there has been a major relaxation of tension within the country regarding the Covid virus. Even government leaders began to take the matter lightly, as evidenced in the funeral arrangements for a former minister which saw tens of thousands of his party supporters jostling at the funeral which was attended by the most senior overnment leaders. More recently President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was seen mingling with crowds of supporters at election rallies.
The government last week responded to the concerns of those countries in the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva which have been taking a special interest in Sri Lanka. They had expressed their concern about the government’s position that it no longer supported UNHRC Resolution 30/1, which Sri Lanka had co-sponsored in 2015 under its previous government. Canada, Germany, North Macedonia, Montenegro and the UK issued a joint statement that expressed disappointment at the abandonment of the partnership with the international community to address the harmful legacies of war and build a sustainable peace in the country. However, they stated that they remained committed to advancing the resolution’s goals of accountability, reconciliation, and inclusive peace in Sri Lanka.
There has been a trend of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa making senior appointments in which those who are outside the established administrative systems are being brought in to provide leadership and ensure effective and non-corrupt practices. As a large number of these appointments have been from the security forces this has given rise to a perception that the country is heading towards eventual military rule. There is a concern that the forthcoming general elections will be followed by constitutional changes that will entrench the military in governance as in some other countries such as Myanmar. This is unlikely to be the case in Sri Lanka as democratic traditions upholding civilian control of government are deeply ingrained in the fabric of political society.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s meeting with top staff of the Central Bank has had a mixed reception. The president admonished the Central Bank for not being adequately supportive of government policy with regard to reviving the economy. In a strongly worded speech the president demonstrated knowledge of the economic performance of other countries. He compared the assistance given by governments such as in the United States and Europe to businesses to revive the economy with facts and figures and said that the Central Bank should act accordingly. There is a need for a policy planning group drawn from the Central Bank, Ministry of Finance, private sector and civil society to sit together with the president to map out the future direction of the country. In doing so there is also a need to be mindful that all elements of the economy are interconnected with one another, and the larger society also.
The signs of elections and the short term changes that they bring are upon us today. Posters of candidates are coming up with their party symbols, preference numbers and their vote-catching mottos. Despite the difficulties that people are undergoing at the individual level due to economic hardships that personally affect them, the reality of politics today is that the electorate does not have a viable alternative to the government. The opposition has still to recover from its weak performance during the last year of its governance in 2019 when it was internally divided between former President Maithripala Sirisena and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. By way of contrast the present government gives an image of strength and competence that is reassuring to the general population.
The Supreme Court’s decision to deny leave to proceed in the eight cases filed before it regarding the dissolution of parliament and the date of the general election places a great responsibility in the hands of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The Supreme Court’s decision means that he remains the sole national repository of the people’s mandate until such time as the general elections are held and a new parliament is elected. Although speculation centres around a date in August for those elections, the vicissitudes of the coronavirus, and the possibility of a second wave of infections even as the country opens up, make it possible that dates decided at this time may have to be disposed of at a later time. In the meantime, Sri Lanka would remain in a limbo without a functioning parliament with the present order continuing indefinitely. One of the important functions of parliament, to act as an oversight body and be a check and balance on the executive, will be in abeyance. The responsibility for governance is on the executive at present.
Unrest and rioting in cities in throughout the United States, the world’s largest economy and one of its richest, have been going on now for a week. Protests have taken place in at least 75 cities and have reached the gates of the White House. The immediate cause for these riots was the killing of an African American man by a white police officer in an especially brutal way by keeping a knee on his neck. This killing was filmed as it was happening in public on the roadside and showed other police officers looking on while people passing by plead with the police to get off the dying man.
A study by the Economist magazine has shown that Sri Lanka is one of the countries least able to deal with the economic fallout of the coronavirus induced world economic crisis. Out of 66 countries assessed, Sri Lanka came 61st in terms of its ability to handle the crisis without being economically debilitated and fared much worse than its South Asian neighbours. Bangladesh at 9th place, India at 18th and Pakistan at 43rd place all fared better than Sri Lanka. The human cost of the crisis is visible in media images of thousands of angry young workers from around the country stranded in the vicinity of the Katunayake free trade zone, many of them abandoned by their factory employers, unable to get back to their home villages due to the coronavirus travel restrictions.
The direction of Sri Lanka’s democratic process hangs in the balance. As many as seven cases with regard to the general elections and the presidential decree dissolving parliament are pending before the Supreme Court. The outcome of the judicial decision may decide whether Sri Lanka will continue to be governed by the president and caretaker cabinet until the general elections actually take place to bring in a new parliament. The constitution has set a three month limit on such an arrangement sans a parliament.
With general elections anticipated to be held soon, political propaganda is once again being generated by those who hope to attain their goals by it. The elections may be held as soon as June 20 which is the date presently set by the Election Commission. However, the continuing increase in the number of Covid infections is a deterrent to a decision to go ahead with the elections. The fact that the numbers are increasing, albeit relatively slowly in comparison to other countries and inspite of the lockdowns and curfews gives an indicator of a possible spike in the numbers in the event of a no-holds barred general election. The Election Commission shows no enthusiasm to take on the responsibility and blame for being responsible for contributing to a catastrophe in the health situation.