Sri Lanka: Poll heading for a political ‘stalemate’?

The Regime's Politics of Violence Implodes - Sri Lanka Guardian

N Sathiya Moorthy 20 April 2020

The way the political discourse about the pending/impending parliamentary polls debate is going on just now, it may well be headed for a ‘stalemate’. Rather, forcing a stalemate is an option for the political Opposition. The ruling SLPP combine may then risk the international opprobrium of a ‘sham democracy’, whatever the popular mandate nearer home.

In the game of chess, ‘check-mate’ means a clean and clear victory. ‘Stalemate’, likewise, means that one on the victory lap has blocked the way of the other, even to a honourable defeat. It is not to the credit of the probable victor. Instead, it brings discredit to him, and on two counts. One, he did not know how to end a winning-game. Two, he could not suffer even a non-existent outside chance to the other player.

The way the ruling Rajapaksa regime is going about the parliamentary poll debate, it is becoming increasingly clear that they want to win, and win early. Nothing wrong about it. If anything, there is much truth in ruling SLPP Chairman G L Peiris’ argument that the Opposition is afraid of sure-defeat and that was the only reason that they wanted the polls postponed. No Opposition leader has met Prof Peiris’ assertion on this score.

Instead, the Opposition is united only in wanting the poll, originally scheduled for 25 April, postponed, almost indefinitely – or, at least until what they say the covid pandemic is behind the nation. A fair assessment, yes, but an assessment that is bereft of solutions.

It’s similar to the post-LTTE presidential polls of 2010, when doubts were raised about the peaceful conduct of the same. “What if the LTTE wee not really extinguished as claimed by the then Government leadership of President Mahinda Rajapaksa (now Prime Minister)? What if there was a blast in some corner of the country (and not necessarily in the Tamil areas) on poll-eve?”

The covid-centric demand for further postponement of the parliamentary polls may not have drawn inspiration from the earlier parallel. Yet, it does leave behind such unanswerable questions. There is no clear indication that the pandemic would have disappeared between now and the day elections are scheduled, say, weeks or months later.

No nation or no global expert, including WHO, has no idea what it is all about. They too do not know if and when the pandemic would all be in the past. Even if the current frenzy of covid-threat is left behind, there is no clear idea as to what ‘passive infection’ means, when and from where it would erupt. It’s like the unseen hand of the LTTE (?) setting off a few poll-eve blasts in 2010, thus upsetting the election schedule, probably.

But then, is the answer to the doubting Thomases from the Opposition, motivated or otherwise, is not to cite the South Korean example. There the elections were held in the midst of covid-threats the world over. But South Korea itself has clamped down on the pandemic as only Japan – and may be the source, China – have done. Comparison with South Korea may thus be wide off the mark, at least at this stage in the nation’s current status on the covid front.

Postponement again?

Given the magnitude and multitude of the covid crisis that took the nation by storm, the Elections Commission (EC), in its wisdom, postponed the polls, scheduled for 25 April, without setting a new date. The EC could not have done so at that point. In the midst of the current political discourse on the new date,

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has said that the EC should have announced an alternate date. It is anybody’s guess that why the Government side did not raise the question at that time. It is not impossible that it owed to ignorance on everyone’s side, both of the covid situation and constitutional provision – or, at least one of them.

Today, the interim solution offered by the Opposition and sections of the civil society identified with them is that the President should rescind his 2 March Gazette notification, dissolving Parliament and ordering fresh polls. That would imply that the dissolved Parliament can come back to life, and hold on until the original end of the official term, in early September – or, thereabouts.

Cutting across party and ethnic lines, the Opposition has also indicated that the polls could be rescheduled to be held before that D-day, so that a new Parliament could be sworn in in good time, after all. They still do not have answers to the ‘what if…’ part pertaining to the possibility of covid-threat persisting even then (not that anyone should wish it on the nation!)

One alternative offered is for the EC to fix a new date between now and 2 June deadline for the three-month term for the conduct of fresh elections to be held. In such a scenario, the EC could revisit the covid conditions closer to that date, and then decide on postponing the poll-date once again. According to media reports, 28 May is a possible date under the EC’s consideration.

Such a construct is also fraught with the if’s and but’s of the perceived constitutional deadlock, still. For argument’s sake, the EC is forced to re-schedule the polls once again, and if the new date now is 28 May, what is the way out? Will President  Gotabhaya Rajapaksa then have enough time to consider all facts, and then promulgate a Gazette notification, rescinding the earlier dissolution and restoring the dissolved Parliament? What if someone were to move the Supreme Court then, for redress of whatever kind, and such a case comes in the way of the President issuing a fresh notification as is being suggested for him, now?

There is also truth if the Government’s anxiety that the resurrected Parliament, with an Opposition majority, may not vote in favour of proposals from the Treasury Benches. If they are even more anxious now that the Opposition may join hands to vote out Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and team, leading to a new and avoidable political crisis in the midst of the otherwise unconquerable covid crisis, who would then have to be blamed for the plight of the affected population?

The alternatives are for the President to restore the old Parliament, and call in mandatory sessions only for a day or two. With Speaker Karu Jayasuriya maintaining the dignity of the high office in the midst of the current national crisis and constitutional deadlock, the latter at least could be avoided. What then about the former?

Maybe after the first and one-day session, the President can dissolve Parliament, all over again. It would again meet with the September deadline for the new Parliament to meet. There will have to be elections before that day, But who then can guarantee that the covid threat would have vanished then, for the EC and the President to take presumptive decisions. How can they validate it before the higher Judiciary, if called in?

Politician all the way

It is sad that the events and developments in the EC are becoming points of public discourse, with one of the Elections Commissioner openly granting news interviews and writing newspaper columns. But even Prof Ratnajeevan Hoole may not have answers to all the constitutional, procedural and political questions that are being flagged – other than to resonate the Opposition demand for the President to reconvene Parliament.

Prof Hoole’s was an out and out a political appointment. He became the welcome ‘Tamil/minority face’ in the EC. His nomination also owed to the backing of the TNA, which was backing the Government of National Unity (GNU) first, and identified with the UNP faction under Prime Minister Ramil Wickremesinghe – in turn, opposed to then President Maithripala Sirisena.

Prof Hoole’s conduct as an EC is unlike that of the other two, including Chairman, Mahinda Deshpriya. There are reasons to believe that the EC is leaking information like a sieve, but nothing like an EC member communicating to the other two through the media. He always has his chance of recording dissent – and the reasons – inside the closed wall. At the end of the day, decisions cannot be unilateral, nor can it defy the majority proposition, whatever be the letter and spirit of the law and procedures.

Packed House…

Yet, the Government camp cannot overlook the possibility of the Opposition now announcing a joint boycott of the parliamentary polls, if it is held any time soon. They can then use the possible low turn-out and a ‘packed’ House to proclaim to the ever-sympathetic ‘international community’ (read: West) that all was not (still) with the Rajapaksa regime.

Leave aside the ‘minority parties’ like the TNA, SLMC and others on the Opposition side,

Who knows, the polls may then be added to the long list of unproved accusations against Sri Lanka, or Rajapaksa regime, to be precise, when the UNHRC meets in Geneva, in September-October. But even the UNHRC masters or Secretariat can provide answers to the ‘what if….’ questions, now or a few weeks from now. It is doubtful if they will have the answers even in September-October, if the elections were to be delayed beyond that date.

Clearly, it’s Advantage Rajapaksas in the parliamentary polls now. Going by media reports and Opposition anxieties, President Gotabhaya may have taken comprehensive and decisive steps to minimise the covid impact, just as he had done as Defence Secretary viz the LTTE, a decade and more back. However, the Government side seems to be anxious if the public support and sympathy, possibly going beyond the ‘Sinhala-Buddhist South’, will hold if the parliamentary polls were to the delayed.

They only need to look back at the parliamentary polls of 2010, after the successful conduct of the LTTE war. Incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa won the presidential polls first and then led his party and alliance to a two-thirds victory in the subsequent Parliament polls, too. It is not an impossible task now again.

But then, even such situation does not have answers for the current constitutional crisis, and a possible political situation – should the divided UNP finds an occasion to come together for once, to boycott the polls along with others in the pack, and shout ‘foul’ for the whole world to hear. Considering that the post-covid social and economic situation is going to provide ample reasons, justification and opportunities for political rallies and public protests of an unprecedented kind, the Government leadership cannot overlook the form, in favour of the content, either.

The article appeared in the Colombo Gazette on 20 April 2020

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N Sathiya Moorthy is Senior Fellow and Director, ORF Chennai A double-graduate in Physics and Law, and with a journalism background, N. Sathiya Moorthy is at present Senior Fellow & Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. Starting his journalism career in the Indian Express – now, the New Indian Express – at Thiruvananthapuram as a Staff Reporter in the late Seventies, Sathiya Moorthy worked as a Subeditor at the newspaper’s then sole publication centre in Kerala at Kochi. Sathiya Moorthy later worked in the Times of Deccan, Bangalore, and the Indian Express, Ahmedabad. Later, he worked as a Senior/Chief Sub at The Hindu, Chennai, and as News Editor, The Sunday Mail (Chennai edition). He has thus worked for most major English language national newspapers in the country, particularly with the advent of Tamil Nadu as the key decision maker in national politics demanding that all newspaper had a reporter in Chennai that they could not afford to have full-time. This period also saw Sathiya Moorthy working as Editor of Aside magazine, Chennai, and as Chief News Editor, Raj TV. In the new media of the day, he was contributing news-breaks and analyses to since its inception. Later, he worked as the Editorial Consultant/Chief News Editor of the trilingual Sri Lankan television group MTV, Shakti TV and Sirasa. Since 2002, Sathiya Moorthy has been the Honorary/full-time Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. In the course of his job and out of personal interest, he has been studying India’s southern, Indian Ocean neighbours, namely Maldives and Sri Lanka, as well as the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC). He regularly writes on these subjects in traditional and web journals. He has also authored/edited books on Sri Lanka, and contributed chapters on India’s two immediate southern neighbours. His book on Maldives is waiting to happen. As part of his continuing efforts to update his knowledge and gain greater insights into the politics and the society in these two countries in particular, Sathiya Moorthy visits them frequently. Among other analytical work, he has been writing a weekly column for over 10 years in the Colombo-based Daily Mirror, first, and The Sunday Leader, since, for nearly 10 years, focusing mainly on Sri Lankan politics and internal dynamics, and at times on bilateral and multilateral relations of that nation. Expertise • Indian Politics, Elections, Public Affairs • Maldives • Sri Lanka • South Asia • Journalism and Mass Media Current Position(s) • Senior Fellow and Director, ORF Chennai Education • BGL, Madras University • BSc, Madurai University