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Put democracy first, say Sri Lankan activists

Petitioners to Supreme Court say a free and fair election cannot be held during a pandemic

UCA News reporter, Colombo

UCA News reporter, Colombo

Updated: May 09, 2020 04:00 AM GMT
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Put democracy first, say Sri Lankan activists

A man reads a newspaper in capital Colombo after Sri Lanka's dissolution of parliament on March 2. (Photo: AFP) 

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Sri Lankan civic rights activists and politicians have filed fundamental rights petitions before the Supreme Court demanding the dismissal of the gazette notification issued by the Election Commission to hold a parliamentary election on June 20.

They include Victor Ivan, former editor of the Ravaya newspaper, Catholic professor Anton Meemana and the Center for Policy Alternatives.

"The petitioners claim that, according to the constitution of the country, there is provision for the election of the next new parliament within three months of the dissolution of parliament, but it cannot happen," said Nalin Thisera, a rights activist from Pannala.

Meemana, a Catholic scripture scholar, said this is not the time for the election. Political parties should not seek a political advantage during the coronavirus pandemic and they should be committed to the well-being of people.

"Our team doesn't belong to any political parties. When the situation has improved, then we can have a free and fair election," Meemana, a lecturer at St. Joseph Vaz lay theologate, told UCA News.

"Strengthen the democracy and everybody should be faithful to the present constitution. Our concern is to promote common good."

Some religious leaders, political parties and rights activists are also urging the government to postpone the general election as the country is not in a position to hold polls due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith doesn't think it is an appropriate time to hold the election. "If we don't find a single corona patient for a considerable period of time, I think that will be the time to hold the election," he said.

According to political parties, the Election Commission is facing big pressure from the government to hold the election soon.

"I do not want the old parliament to be reopened for any reason," said President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Some candidates have already started their election campaigns by distributing dry ration packets.

President Rajapaksa dissolved parliament on March 2. As it was dissolved six months prior to the due date, the commission had to postpone the general election from April 25.

Rajapaksa won the presidential election last November with 70 percent of the vote. He was the clear victor in Sinhalese-majority areas but his rival Sajith Premadasa scored better in the Tamil-majority north.

The election came five months after the deadly Easter Sunday attacks when nine suicide bombers affiliated to local Islamist extremist group National Thowheed Jamath targeted three Christian churches and three luxury hotels, killing at least 279 people including 37 foreign nationals.

Many opposition political leaders say that the former parliament should be recalled.

Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL) has expressed its concern over government steps to enact a “no questions asked” policy on deposits of foreign currency.

"At a time when there is an unprecedented lack of parliamentary and judicial oversight on government actions, coupled with limited proactive disclosure of information, corruption risks and vulnerabilities are exacerbated. It would therefore be unwise for a caretaker government to implement policies which could encourage money laundering, with a potentially far-reaching detrimental effect to the Sri Lankan economy," said TISL executive director Asoka Obeyesekere.

TISL said that Sri Lanka was only recently removed from the Grey List of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) and steps including “no questions asked” policies on foreign deposits could have a negative impact on the country's ability to attract bona fide investment.

Manas Makeen, executive director of Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE), said that Sri Lanka's general election must be postponed for at least three months. Only pro-government parties have taken advantage of the lockdown and obtained curfew passes to start distributing food but it is now difficult to create an equal ground for a free and independent election, he said.

Thisera said that, according to opposition parliamentarians, the government could spend state funds only until April 30.

He said petitioners are also seeking a ruling on the violation of fundamental rights by holding an election before the end of the coronavirus epidemic.

"The election should be held only after the people have overcome the Covid-19 situation where people are afraid to go out and do things without fear," said Thisera.

Sri Lanka has reported 835 coronavirus cases and nine deaths, according to the latest data.

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