Only COVID-19 can decide 20 June poll – Mahinda Deshapriya

Mahinda Deshapriya

The COVID-19 spread and fear has curtailed the freedom to hold the General Election. Holding a series of discussions and cancelling the date fixed for the polls earlier, the Election Commission has declared 20 June as the next best date.

Election Commission Chairman, Mahinda Deshapriya, says for the first time in the history of Sri Lanka, a pandemic has caused chaos in holding an election, and stated that nothing other than COVID-19 can determine whether 20 June is conducive to hold the poll. “The virus is the EC Boss these days,” he said.

Following are excerpts of the interview:

Can we say that the General Election fixed for 20 June could be a mock poll date or a tentative, due to the prevailing uncertainty with COVID-19?

A: As the Election Commission Chairman, I cannot say it’s a mock date. We are compelled to publish a date for the poll as discussed at the Commission. But there is also the 2 June barrier, that is to convene Parliament three months after dissolving it (on 2 March) as per the Constitution. The last date before 2 June is 30 May.

To answer the 2 June barrier, if we hold the poll on 30 May, on the same gazette, we should publish that we cannot conduct the election on that date, which is violating the 2 June barrier. We discussed these matters at length, so, the Commission decided together with other officials, including legal advisors, that we have to ‘jump over’ the 2 June convening of the House.

30 May was impossible, because if we had to start poll work, it should be from 20 May, so that we could complete the postal vote and other matters before 11 May, but the prevailing curfew was a barrier. We know the COVID-19 pandemic will last, till a vaccine is found.

How did the Election Commission decide that 20 June is best for the General Election?

A: There was a Gazette Notification and we prepared, under Section 24(1) and Sub Section 2 and 4 of the EC, the list of political parties’ names, numbers of candidates, symbols and polling stations. Then we can complete the gazette. From that day, we count 49 days maximum, which falls on 21 June 2020, which is a Sunday, and that is not the day to hold the poll. Then, we decided it to be on 20 June, a Saturday.

What were the alternative dates?

A: We discussed about holding it on 17 August or 1 September, but we cannot be sure. These are not in relation to the Election Act. So, we decided to count the dates going by the Section 24(1) Gazette. First, we decided to go by the 30 April gazette publication and the poll would be on 17 June. But when the curfew in Colombo was imposed till 27 April, which means we won’t have time to do the gazette and proof etc, by 4 May.

So, we started to count the date from 4 April, which would fix the poll on 21 June, which would be a Sunday, hence, fixed it for 20 June. We cannot say it’s a mock date, but tentatively. Officially, it is 20 June. What we can say is that it depends on COVID-19 and how it ‘behaves.’ At the meeting, I said ‘Insha COVID,’ instead of Insha Allah!

COVID-19 cases are on the rise. Are you closely monitoring the situation?

A: We can expect that after another 30 or more days, from 20 June, we would have to decide on another date for the poll.

You have also spoken of a constitutional crisis amid poll uncertainty?

A: We are not experts.

But convening of a new Parliament depends on the General Election, correct?

A: The President should decide.

Then why did you tell the President, through his Secretary, P.B. Jayasundera, to seek a determination from the Supreme Court on conducting the General Election, owing to the current COVID-19 situation and that failing to reconvene Parliament on time if the pandemic continues, would create a constitutional crisis?

A: They said it’s their decision whether or not to go to the SC after reading my request. They don’t need advice from us.

Did you respond to Jayasundera’s letter?

A: We have only acknowledged it.

What is your view on reconvening Parliament?

A: I can’t answer that ‘Budhu Ammo!’

What has the EC done so far pertaining to the poll?

A: We have asked the Postmaster General to send postal vote applications. He assured he can deliver them by 26 April and some postal vote applications are with Heads of Departments (like education directors and agriculture directors). We will also try to prepare a manual, on how to conduct the election under the prevailing pandemic.

COVID-19 is a common problem and apolitical, but you have told no politicians should be involved in relief programmes. How can they work for their constituency?

A: They don’t have to get involved personally, but give the relief items to the Government, and to Divisional Secretariats for distribution.

Jayasundera said if the EC has postponed the election, they are obliged to specify another day, in the Gazette issued under Section 24(3), if the poll could not take place on 25 April 2020 and that the EC has failed to do. What is your explanation?

A: They are challenging it now. On that day, why didn’t they tell us why we have not mentioned the next date? We would have gazetted it immediately.

Who should advise the EC, whether to hold the poll on 20 June?

A: Only COVID-19 and he is the ‘boss.’

What about the Health Ministry?

A: How can the Health Ministry say no COVID-19 now in Sri Lanka? We have more than 8 weeks for polls. Our main consultants are assistant commissioners and deputy commissioners, who will take a collective decision with opinions gathered from the Government Agents, Secretary of Public Administration, Grama Niladharis, Police, and the IGP, and the Director General of Health, Dr. Anil Jasinghe.

The Commission is not ready for the election over the dead bodies of our citizens, officials, or over the political activists. They are our stakeholders. We have to look after their lives.

Did the EC receive any poll-related complaints?

A: We receive many cases and one is that the Rs 5,000 distribution, in which politicians are involved. There are cut-outs, some 30 ft, of politicians in some areas. Even in Colombo, we have asked the Police to remove them. But some of the OICs are reluctant.

South Korea held its election amidst COVID-19 recently and why not Sri Lanka?

A: I read online news that South Korea had spent US$ 39.8 million on personal protective equipment alone for the poll. We have to face COVID-19 and democracy and cannot give priority to one. My slogan is democracy to the people and defeat COVID-19.

(Source: Ceylon Today – By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan)