Who is politicizing the COVID-19 crisis, for whose benefit?
Posted on April 15th, 2020

By Rohana R. Wasala

The Island newspaper of April 10, 2020, in a front page news report (PB ‘reads Election Act’ to EC chief”), published  a letter dated April 06, 2020 addressed to the Chairman of the Election Commission Mahinda Deshapriya by Presidential Secretary P.B. Jayasundara, which was in response to two letters from the former to the latter dated March 31 and April 01, 2020 under the title ‘Parliamentary Election 2020 and Date of Summoning of the New Parliament’. The president’s secretary expresses surprise ‘that letters which have been sent for the attention of His Excellency the President by the Election Commission, in respect of the official functions of the President of Republic, have been released to the press, prior to the receipt of the letters by this office and that the same have also been copied to several others’. He also points out that though the commissioner is obliged to give an alternative date for the election in the gazette notification issued under Section 24(3) in the event it could not be held on the originally specified date of April 25, 2020, regrettably, he has failed to do so, as the presidential secretary remarks. The highest civil administrative further explains that deciding the date of the election is the responsibility of the Election Commission and that the president has no wish to interfere with the duties and obligations of the EC. The presidential secretary finally informs the EC chairman that the question of consulting the Supreme Court in terms of Article 129 of the Constitution does not arise. (But EC member Ratnajeevan Hoole points out {as reported in Sunday Island/April 12} that it is still the case that averting a constitutional crisis is in the hands of the president, because only the president could consult the apex court about the matter, in Hoole’s opinion.)

An important aspect of the backdrop to the allegedly looming constitutional q impasse may be inferred from the following circumstances: At a time when politicians in general had earned a bad name largely due to the irresponsible behaviour of some elected buffoons in the dysfunctional parliament that was dissolved on March 02,2020, non-politician Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, a former Secretary of Defence, and also, of the Urban Development Authority, was elected by the people of Sri Lanka with the largest majority ever (over 1.3 million votes) to the post of executive president. Sri Lankans had been driven to despair by the Yahapalanya (2015-19) that, some of its critics rightly or wrongly felt, rode roughshod over the innocent majority Sinhalese at the behest of foreign powers with geopolitical axes to grind and separatists and INGOs parasitizing on those global powers unilaterally condemning them (the Sinhalese) as racists, xenophobes, chauvinists, and so on, whereas the truth is that the Sinhalese majority are the victims of racism, xenophobia, chauvinism, and other similarly reprehensible attitudes on the part of their critics (who should not be identified with the ordinary members of the minority communities that they falsely claim are illtreated by the majority community). It is suspected that these anti-national elements dominate/manipulate the media, especially the English press. Misinformation keeps the truth buried and out of sight. Because of this,  the term ‘international’ has become synonymous with the word ‘anti-national’ from the point of view of ordinary Sri Lankans. But nationalists always welcome and reciprocate the goodwill of other nations, subject to the principle of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs. 

Unfortunately, it has begun to look as if the EC, appointed under the failed Yahapalana  regime,were in sympathy with this anti-majority/Sinhalese mentality, and as if it (the EC) were sharing the opposition’s fears of parliamentary elections being held in the near future before the electorate has had enough time to forget about their past misrule. (But some of the defeated politicos of the opposition now seemingly favour early elections, apparently believing that the Corona-hit conditions have made the government unpopular enough for them to recoup their past electoral losses. As far as Hoole is concerned however, the Covid-19 pandemic is a godsend for him to try and get the president to seek supreme court advice in the hope or his wishful thinking that its decision would be favourable to the opposition side.) The conduct of two of the three members of the Commission, chairman Mahinda Deshapriya and member Ratnajeevan Hoole, is confirming the popular perception that they have a strong anti-majority bias. Hoole, compromised his credibility as a member of the EC, in addition to the integrity and independence of that honourable body, when he, among a number of others, challenged the dissolution of parliament in November 2018, thereby potentially seeking to prevent the holding of elections for a new parliament, for, by doing so, he appeared to be trying to rob the people of their right to vote at a critical juncture that demanded a change of government. In any case, the dissolution of parliament by the previous president was declared unconstitutional and the administration formed under Mahinda Rajapaksa came to an end limiting its existence to just 51 days, during which, they claimed, they were able to impede the disastrous course that the Yahapalanaya was set on, thereby preventing it from rushing some greatly harmful legislation through parliament. Before that, Hoole, while still being a member of the EC, egged on TNA’s Sumanthiran (then MP) ruling the roost in a parliament emasculated through the premature unraveling of the unholy Yahapalana alliance like Hedda’s  ‘the only cock in the yard’ in Ibsen’s play ‘Hedda Gabler’, (a description she used to taunt Brack, the friendly but unwelcome stalker, for always using ‘the back way’ for drawing her attention). For his part, chairman of the EC Mahinda Deshapriya was once heard, if my memory is not wrong, making a casually enigmatic remark to the effect that in a multiethnic democracy the view of the majority was not the correct one! 

With the quietly menacing entry of the impact of the global Covid-19 crisis into the island and the growing intensification of activities on a national scale aimed at containing it, involving the governmental health and security departments, Mahinda Deshapriya began repeatedly reminding/warning politicians, particularly government party politicians, against trying to make political capital out of those activities. Constitutionally, he has a right to do so in the post-dissolution period pending elections, but the bias he shows in this context perceptibly in favour of one party (the opposition side) and to the detriment of the other (government side) is unacceptable, to say the least. When an election has been announced, politicians in the ruling party naturally tend to draw such criticisms from the opposition ranks, whether they are guilty of abusing their functional authority for political advantage or not. Nominations having been accepted, the contestants are now known. Some unscrupulous ones among them are likely to promote themselves by participating in relief operations aimed at helping people stranded in an indefinite countrywide lockdown situation. However, it is not fair to expect them to focus on expressly demonstrating their candour in this connection instead of on successfully executing the tasks assigned them by their respective leaders in the COVD-19 pandemic related emergency. Their participation is indispensable, but how genuine their commitment to the national endeavour is hard to determine. They need to be given the benefit of the doubt.  In reality, therefore, the EC chairman is vulnerable to the accusation of politicising the Covid-19 emergency to the advantage of the opposition and to the disadvantage of the governing party. The leader of the National Freedom Front Minister Wimal Weerawansa directly addressed Deshapriya on air from a live interview at Derana TV with anchor Dilka Samanmalee on April 6 and gave him a comprehensive hard hitting answer over this particular issue; Weerawansa demanded that Deshapriya first stop Hoole politicizing the Corona crisis, which the latter was unashamedly still doing. Hoole had told the BBC, quite falsely as usual with him, that under Gotabhaya the country was moving towards a dictatorship. Weerawansa pointed out that it was not possible for the government and the health and security services alone to successfully handle the national Corona control effort; they needed the fullest participation of all including the opposition parties and alliances. Elections could be held when the conditions are safe. The EC had the constitutional authority to fix the date of the election.

Lanka C News (April 15) reported  Ven. Alle Gunawansa, a known supporter of the Gotabhaya-Mahinda government, as having stated that though there appear to be a group that is pushing for an early election, the idea should not be entertained until the country is completely safe from the Corona affliction. At a time when the president, the tri-services and the health authorities are successfully handling the epidemic containment job, they need to be allowed to finish it properly. No doubt, this is the government’s attitude. 

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