After successfully containing the spread of COVID-19, Sri Lanka is set to hold parliamentary elections on August 5. The elections will be held for 196 legislative seats, along with 29 seats that are proportionally distributed between the political parties based on their national vote share.
In line with the 19th amendment of the country’s constitution, which mandated completion of a minimum period of four-and-a-half years of the parliamentary term to avoid arbitrary dissolutions by the president, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa dissolved parliament and called for general elections as soon as this time period was completed. Opposition parties and civil society filed several petitions in the supreme court against his decision. The Court rejected the petitions and the elections were scheduled to for April 25. But the pandemic forced Sri Lanka’s Election Commission to postpone the elections to June 20 — two weeks past the completion of three months, a deadline provided in the Article 70(5) of the constitution, which mandates that the newly elected parliament must meet within three months of the proclamation of dissolution by the president. Despite an uproar against the suspected constitutional crisis, the EC, considering the entailing health risks due to the pandemic, postponed the elections to August 5.
To prevent the upcoming elections becoming a public health hazard, the EC has been holding mock elections. Additionally, the Sri Lankan government has issued health guidelines that include limiting the number of people engaged in door-to-door campaigning to five people. Only 300 participants are allowed to attend meetings — which can be increased to 500 if a party leader is attending it. All the participants are to maintain one-metre distance and judiciously use hand sanitisers, masks and gloves. This is, however, a watered-down version of the guidelines suggested by the Ministry of Health. The MoH guidelines also called for a minimum number of people in polling booths with separate entry and exit points, providing PPE kits to election officers in polling booths in quarantine centres, and allowing voters with fever to visit the polling stations towards the end of the voting process.
Though the EC has been increasingly wary of the pandemic situation unfolding in the country, it has chosen not to extend the provision of postal voting to sections vulnerable to COVID-19. Like earlier elections, postal voting has been limited to public officials assigned to electoral duty. This is contrary to the practice amongst several countries that are holding elections during the pandemic. Even India, which offered the provision only to armed forces and senior citizens above the age of 80 years, has allowed people infected with COVID-19 or in home quarantine to avail this option in the Bihar elections.
The provision of an absentee ballot ensures less crowding at polling centres, which in turn, reduces the risk of voters and election staff contracting the virus. In addition, it would ensure maximum participation in polling. For instance, South Korea, with the help of postal voting and scattered voter timings, recorded its highest voter turnout of 66.2 per cent in 28 years in its recent national elections. Similarly, Poland provided the option of in-person voting and postal voting in the presidential elections and witnessed a record voter turnout (64.5 per cent) in the first round since 1995.
Besides crowd control at voting centres, Sri Lanka’s EC is faced with several implementation problems. With the pandemic, the campaigning has shifted to online platforms. Though it is a safer option, election management bodies across the world have consistently struggled in reining in fake news, hate speech and targeted political advertisements on online platforms. For Sri Lanka, in particular, the absence of campaign finance laws would further exacerbate the problem. Moreover, due to the restricted contact with voters, political parties are likely to use their affiliations to private media to float biased news without any inhibition because of the EC’s inability to monitor the online space.
The EC would also have to keep in check its expenses. It is not a secret that every electoral management body is financially challenged, which would be further compounded with additional responsibilities of stocking safety equipment and increased polling staff and centres. Sri Lanka awaits an impending recession. With limited funds at its disposal, the EC has to conduct a fool-proof election.
For successfully managing the COVID-19 pandemic, the incumbent prime minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, has a better chance in the parliamentary elections. A majority in parliament will help President Gotabaya push through a constitutional amendment to strengthen his powers. The brothers’ “commitment” to public health was evident when their party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, cancelled their campaigns, citing the sudden spike in the number of COVID-19 patients. The decision has earned them some brownie points with the voters.
The poll outcome, coming in the backdrop of India-China tensions, will be closely watched in New Delhi. During the presidential term of Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka had grown closer to China. Now, under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Colombo is rethinking the East Container Terminal project since India has kept Sri Lanka’s request on debt freeze hanging. With China increasing its presence in the neighbourhood, India would want to forgo its unpopular masculine “big brother” attitude and foster its position as a gentle helping hand to Sri Lanka.
In the end, the elections in Sri Lanka would be of particular interest to Election Commission of India, which is preparing itself for Bihar Assembly polls and is drawing lessons from countries that have conducted elections during the pandemic. So far, South Korea has been the template. Sri Lanka may provide some more insights.
Quraishi is a former chief election commissioner of India and the author of An Undocumented Wonder — The Making of the Great Indian Election
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