Will Covid impact on the polls?

By N Sathiya Moorthy

Reports of recent deduction of COVID-19 cases in some parts of the country, coupled with Elections Commission (EC) Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya’s caution that the poll-centric guidelines issued by the nation’s health authorities are not being followed should be a cause for fresh concern. Even as the fear of the pandemic might be back in the minds of the people and the public administration alike, it can also cast a shadow on the parliamentary polls, slated for 5 August.

There is nothing whatsoever to suggest that at least at this stage there is any reason for the EC to push the panic-button and the media starts speculating if the scheduled polling will be shifted further and farther than already. But with less than a month away, there is a need for public health officials, the general administration and the EC to keep a closer watch than they might have thought necessary when the Government lifted the nation-wide lock-down, convinced as everyone concerned was that the worst was over on the pandemic front.

Going by the experience of other nations, starting with China where it all began, there seems to be a possibility of a second, and even a third wave of coronavirus attack anywhere and everywhere. The recent caution sent out by some medical scientists, endorsed by the World Health Organisation (WHO), that the virus could spread through air, makes it impossible for any government or any authority to plan, or not plan, anything, least of all, a national election.

Sri Lanka has prided itself about its long treat with electoral democracy. Even without it, the parliamentary polls have already become the cause of action on a number of petitions in the Supreme Court only recently. That the court found nothing wrong in the Government’s position, as also the two previous postponements ordered by the EC, should encourage the nation that there is no legal or judicial hurdle to conducting the polls on a scheduled day.

The problem is that if there is once again rumour-mongering about possibility of further Covid19 spread in the nation, there may be those who may move the courts for further postponement – and more so, reconvening of the dissolved Parliament. With the six-month constitutional outer limit the presidential proclamation on the 2 March dissolution ending in early September, their case for reconvening the dissolved Parliament could become even more complicated and unsustainable.

Rumour-mongering

The sum and substance of the current situation and the possibilities ahead is all about rumour-mongering, and how to stop it. In the social media era, or the culture of hand-phone/mobile usage, as in any country, there is great urgency and need for authorities to address the issue even before it breaks out. How and when they should do what may need to be done in this regard is as administrative as the technological requirements are specific and specialised.

Rumour-mongering on election-eve and particularly on the polling day can impact on the turnout, either in individual booths, electorates or across regions or the nation as a whole. While the people’s faith in the authority on Covid-control has only increased after the well-coordinated efforts that has made it a success thus far, the reaction time available to them though the few hours of polling may not be enough.

The predecessor regime imposed national emergency for a short period, to freeze the social media in the aftermath of the ethnic clashes in Batticaloa and Kandy. It is unclear if a national emergency, if at all it came to that and a massive democratic exercise like the parliamentary poll could go together. If it were to be the case, Sri Lanka might create democratic and constitutional history across the world for holding constitutionally-mandated elections under national emergency. Yet, this is all a subject for timely consideration, nothing more.

Questions will then arise as to who should be enforcing such bans? An over-active EC, which is also over-ambitious in the absence of inherent administrative powers, may cause eye brows to raise. Critics of this Government, both inside the country and outside, would be checking every detail with a tooth-comb, to see if anything could be slapped on the ruling Rajapaksa dispensation. Such an approach can twist and turn their own honest perceptions.

Pandemic control

Indications are that the Government has succeeded in controlling Covid spread, earlier than anticipated. With only ten deaths and just above 2000-positive cases, nation can take pride in its robust public health system, which was stretched beyond limits, but did not seem to have caved in. Given his methodical approach to problem-solving President Gotabaya Rajapaksa also seemed to have identified the right people for the right job, and given them the political support and financial and human resources to carry out an unknown task on a untested turf. They have cleared the test creditably.

Opinion was divided when the President handed over the Covid management to the armed forces. The social media was also abuzz with early reports of the uniformed man on the street being rude towards those violating the nation-wide curfew, or local lockdowns, which was the only common prescription the world had learnt from the ‘Wuhan experience’. But once they understood the seriousness, rather the impossibility of the issue on hand and also the success rate of such an attempt, people seemed to have fallen in line and cooperated voluntarily. Success in this case would not have been possible without public cooperation.

Pandemic as poll issue

Leaving aside other possibilities, the question remains if Covid as an issue per se could impact on the parliamentary polls. On the one side is the public perception of the Government’s handling of the uninvited situation over when the nation did not have any control over stoppage at entry-point. Considering that the pandemic is worse than tsunami, which again the nation had not heard of until it struck on Boxer’s Day, 2004, the Government’s handling of the situation will be put to test for public approval and rating – which is what electoral democracy is all about.

Whatever that be, there is no denying that the pandemic as also the consequent postponement of the parliamentary polls twice in three months, has changed the nature and scope of the electoral issues already.  It is no more about memories of the presidential polls continuing to influence voter-memory all the way up to the election of a new Parliament. If the voter still chooses the ruling SLPP combine on 5 August, it will be based on his assessment of the Government’s handling of the pandemic and other national issues, concerns and situations. A victory thus for the Government leadership would thus become a referendum of sorts, unlike earlier elections, where a cakewalk for the elected President’s party in the subsequent parliamentary polls was just that and nothing more.

The irony is that no one on god’s good earth can guarantee anyone if there won’t be any Covid19 so many months afterwards. According to scientists the virus is going through various strains and mutations, one ‘better-equipped’ to face off a better-prepared world than for the previous strain. The solution lies in the early production of a successful drug and its mass manufacture at affordable prices after the required testing and certification.

As things stand, none of it is in Sri Lanka’s hands, not that anyone anywhere has produced a drug that has been tested and claim to be the sure cure for Covid19. What the nation and the Government may have to be prepared with is a huge, unpredictable budget for procuring the wonder drug, as and when founded, as the manufacturers are going to ‘rob’ nations and communities, at least over the short term. The Government cannot be seen as denying its population the medicine which is available elsewhere, but whose price and availability become dear.

Figure of speech

The question still remains if the pandemic would affect voting figures, leave alone the results, one way or the other. In the past, Sri Lanka has voted 80-plus per cent in presidential polls, 75-plus in parliamentary elections and 70-plus for the provincial council. Of course, it is a national average, but both political parties and pollsters do their homework based on past voter-behaviour and its impact on the electoral outcome.

Since the post-war presidential polls of 2010, the Rajapaksas have carved out a formidable and at times enviable 40-per cent committed vote-share – all in their name. The vagaries of politics and the performance of their rivals in office through the previous years brought in the decisive ‘other’ vote. In this case, it was nothing but the traditional vote-bank of their parent SLFP-UPFA, which the latter had retained under the outgoing President Maithirpala Sirisena.

Add up the polling figures of the SLPP combine (40 per cent) and of the SLFP-UPFA (13 per cent) from the local government polls of February 2018, and you are close to President Gotabaya’s victorious vote-share of 52 per cent last November. The climb-down  in the rival UNP (then united, at least in form) from the local government polls from the traditionally trusted 35 per cent plus to 30 per cent showed that losing party candidate Sajith Premadasa’s 42 per cent came also from the UNP’s allies from the ‘minorities’, more than either side is ready to acknowledged. The message is that like the JVP’s vote-share earlier, the Rajapaksas have also eaten into the rival UNP’s vote-bank too, even if only a small portion thereof.

With the UNP vertically split, it is not unlikely that some of its traditional urban-backers could consider sitting at home, clearing their conscience by citing the pandemic. That way, this elections are not only about the Rajapaksas bagging Parliament, two-thirds or not, but even more so about their ability to retain their traditional vote-shares and building up on it, given their claims to handling the Covid crisis as well as they handled the post-tsunami relief and restoration operations – where however aid, assistance and technologies flowed from far and near. Nor for this one, at least not as yet in substantial quantities, so as to make a difference to the national effort and the governmental leadership.

(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: [email protected])

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