Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • April 2020
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Archive for April, 2020

Reconvening Parliament as polls postponed

Posted by harimpeiris on April 27, 2020

By Harim Peiris

(Published in Groundviews on 27th April 2020)

Even for a country that coped with and ended a near thirty year long civil war, the Covid-19 pandemic has posed an unprecedented challenge, not merely in the area of public health, but also economically of a magnitude that has the potential to cause significant social upheaval. The backbone of Sri Lanka’s economy has been our expatriate worker remittances, tourism and the apparel industry. The global nature of the Covid-19 epidemic, styled a global pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO), would mean that even after an end to the lock downs not just in Sri Lanka, but also in host countries for our expatriate workers, tourist originating nations and the apparel markets of the USA and the EU, the continuation of social distancing guidelines, virus spread mitigating measures and economic disruption may well cause these industries to not pick up to levels seen in prior years, at least for quite a while. This means serious economic pain and unemployment in Sri Lanka, resulting in social tensions.

As April 25th, the scheduled date for the parliamentary elections, declared with the proclamation dissolving parliament, came and went, the Elections Commission provisionally differed the election to 20th June 2020 and giving every indicator that public health authorities and the Covid-19 pandemic situation rather than any other factor would determine the date of holding the election.  In that context, a looming constitutional conundrum has arisen, as pointed out, late last month, by the Elections Commission to the Secretary to the President. In those now well-known missives, the independent Elections Commission (EC)  brought to the attention of the Secretary to the President, that relevant legislation required that Parliament must be convened three months after dissolution, i.e. by 2nd June, subsequent to the 2nd of March dissolution and the public health situation did not permit the conduct of a parliamentary election before this date. The EC recommended seeking the opinion of the Supreme Court regarding the situation. Even as this article is being penned, there are attempts at persuading the government to withdraw the gazette, which prematurely dissolved parliament and to reconvene the same, to enable all the three arms of the Sri Lankan State, the executive, the legislature and the judiciary, to function effectively to create a unified non-partisan national response to a truly national, apolitical public health and economic challenge. The constitutional and legal provisions of the arguments regarding the dissolution of parliament, the absence of an approved budget, the violation of the approved debt ceiling, amid other legal issues could be better discussed in a different forum and may well end up decided by the Superior Courts, as indeed the constitutional issues of the October 2018 constitutional revolution was decided and resolved judicially.

However, this article seeks to examine some of the public policy and governance, as opposed to the legal issues, arising from the premature dissolution of parliament and the absence of a functioning legislature during this period of the national fight against the Covid-19. Firstly history, political science and common sense teaches us that facing a common enemy is best done in a united manner, as a common front and together, rather than divided, in factions and in a polarized manner. Accordingly, it would be wise for the government to seek to include the opposition parties and create some bi-partisan consensus on dealing with this very non-political public health issue and its economic and social fall out. A process best done in through the august assembly of Parliament.

On the contrary, the SLPP Administration, having recently won an election in November last year and with every confidence of winning the forthcoming parliamentary election, perceives little or no need for either any opposition cooperation or support. There is little love lost or trust reposed in their political opponents. When the idea of re-summoning parliament and seeking to extend the vote on account, if not pass a budget and other measures aimed at regularizing public finance beyond end April 2020, were first mooted, there were concerns in the highest echelons of the Government, that its minority status in parliament would make it vulnerable when seeking parliamentary approval and possibly open it up to defeat on a money bill and be ousted from office in the legislature. The SLPP had not forgotten the lessons of October 2018, where its minority Administration, sworn in by then President Sirisena, twice consecutively lost motions of no confidence in Parliament.

Avoid politicization and rights violations

Opinion surveys, Sri Lanka’s substitute for statistically accurate opinion polls supposedly shows very high approval ratings for the government’s response to the covid-19 epidemic. In fact, this is unsurprising, since the social distancing measures via a currently five week and increasing curfew has indeed been “flattening our curve” and the only real criticism of the government is that it dissolved parliament despite the looming virus pandemic and delayed the start of the fight against Covid-19 by quite a bit to accommodate the dissolution of parliament and the acceptance of nominations for the general elections on 19th March, with the curfew being declared the very next day on the 20th.  The question being asked from government leaders around the world, is also relevant in Sri Lanka, which is why were not these measures taken earlier, when the pandemic warnings were clear to national authorities, though not to the general public.

Leader of the Opposition and Samagi Jana Balawegaya leader Sajith Premadasa has called on the government to not politicize the distribution of relief supplies, including the Rupees five thousand relief payment to needy families, resulting from the fact that local government politicians mostly from the governing SLPP have been included in the committees nominated to decide on beneficiaries. A hitherto unheard-of practice in the distribution of relief supplies from the Government in times of national emergency. This in a situation where to the contrary, the opposition Tamil National Alliance (TNA) controlled local councils in the North have been prevented by the Government through the Governor, in even using their own funds to provide relief for their constituencies. A measure that has been widely criticized in the North. Additionally, the Opposition has raised issue about the alleged harassment of social media activists and the detention of an Attorney at Law amid alleged serious due process lapses on the part of the relevant authorities.  These are issues best avoided when facing a crucial national challenge. One in which we are all better served, if we face it together, to more effectively deal with the issues. The approach in international diplomacy and global problem solving of consultation, cooperation and collaboration, would just as effectively serve us domestically as well as internationally.

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Emerging Governance Issues Amid Covid-19

Posted by harimpeiris on April 9, 2020

By Harim Peiris

(Published in Groundviews on 09th April 2020)

As Sri Lanka heads towards completing nearly a month of lockdown, with first the special public holiday route adopted from 16th March and then curfew from 20th March onwards, there are emerging a set of medium to long term issues, in addition to the short term measures being adopted to “flatten the curve” or reduce and stretch out the time of the spread of the Covid-19 virus in the country. The immediate short-term measures recommended by the health authorities and eventually adopted by the Government, perhaps after some hesitation, has certainly resulted in the spread of the Covid-19 virus being contained in Sri Lanka. However, as it becomes clearer now that the risk of the spread of the virus of epidemic proportions, will be around and not actually totally abate, until a vaccine and other new medical therapies and treatments are found, there are some emerging medium-term governance and longer-term economic issues which are emerging and have been flagged by the relevant parties concerned.

Last week, the Chairman of the Elections Commission wrote to the Secretary to the President, effectively the head of the civil service, to appraise His Excellency the President, that a general election to Parliament could not be held as per his gazette notification of March 2nd, prematurely dissolving the Parliament of Sri Lanka, four and a half years into its five-year term. Hard on the heels of this missive from the Elections Commission, several smaller political party leaders, have called for the recall by the President of his gazette notification on the grounds that the state of public health does not allow for the mass socialization and internal migration which a general election necessarily entails. In the alternate others have called for summoning of the dissolved parliament as permitted in the Constitution, for the purpose of a national emergency. The rationale for the recall of Parliament or the rescinding of the gazette dissolving parliament, is that Parliament has a further period in its term and the early dissolution was a discretionary political move, a presidential prerogative under the constitution after the lapse of four and a half years after a parliamentary election, but now impractical under the existing public health situation and hence should be withdrawn, as it is impractical and not implementable.

Several analysts and government voices have argued that the government is handling the Coronavirus situation satisfactorily and there is no need to summon parliament. However, several compelling arguments to the contrary exist. Firstly Sri Lanka, like any other civilized nation on earth, is not fighting the virus with its constitution suspended and under an emergency. Other civilized nations in the world have not done so either. This global pandemic is being fought by nations as civilized societies under the rule of law. Accordingly, under law basic and crucial public finance issues exist. It is a well-founded principle in most democratic governance norms, including in Sri Lanka, that the control of public finance, through the approval of the annual state budget and the oversight of government expenditure by the executive is done by the legislature, in the tradition of the separation of powers and the checks and balances, inherent and essential in a democratic society under law.

Both the former Finance and State Finance ministers, Mangala Samaraweera and Eran Wickramaratne respectively have highlighted variously, the need to extend the Vote on Account passed by the new SLPP Administration upon its assumption of office, raise the debt ceiling to continue borrowing and also create a legal basis for various public safety measures being adopted including the ongoing curfew, which is a “police curfew” rather than a nationally declared one possible under several laws, but which would then require parliament’s concurrence. In real politic terms, complicating matters for the government, is that it is a minority government in Parliament, popular in the country through its mandate in last November’s presidential election, but cautious almost pessimistic about its ability to get Parliamentary approval for any of its initiatives. However, a legal limbo over state finance does not augur well for our long-term attractiveness as an investment destination, our international credit ratings and ability to tap global financial markets. Sri-Lanka will require to tap global financial markets to refinance that portion of its public debt maturing in 2020, a not inconsiderable Billion dollars or so and in an environment when global recession may occur.

Of more immediate concern though, as the lockdown curfew continues in the most densely populated of Sri Lanka’s districts namely the Colombo, Gampaha, Kandy, Jaffna and Kalutara districts, is the livelihood and income requirements of the self-employed and the casual laborer, mostly found in the populated urban areas of the above districts. The government proposes a Rupees five thousand a month stipend or supplies of that value to them, which relief has not yet commenced and the adequacy of which for say a typical family of four or more, is questionable. In the medium term, managing the economy, especially on the production and supply side becomes crucial, especially given our skewed income distribution in society. Quite quickly the urban poor can become destitute and vulnerable, with food security and scarcity an issue. The pressure on Sri Lanka’s exchange rate has also been acute, with the Sri Lankan Rupee depreciating over eight percent since end Feb to mid-April. In the medium term, there is a need to move from complete lockdown, to a partial lockdown and then life style changes to maintain social distancing until the threat of a fresh outbreak of the virus recedes through new medical treatments, therapies and vaccines. The complex and challenging governance issues facing us, during these unprecedented times, is best dealt with in a bi-partisan manner, with consultation and consensus.

 

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