Sri Lanka postpones parliamentary polls over coronavirus fears

A Sri Lankan air force soldier wearing a facemask amid concerns over the spread of COVID-19 stands guard at the Bandaranaike International airport in Katunayake on March 19, 2020. (AFP)
Short Url
Updated 19 March 2020

Sri Lanka postpones parliamentary polls over coronavirus fears

  • The general elections were slated for April 25, nominations were to be filed by Thursday
  • The island has reported 53 virus cases, while 213 are being kept under observation in 16 hospitals for treating Covid-19

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka on Thursday announced an indefinite postponement of the parliamentary elections slated for April 25 owing to the global coronavirus spread.
The Chairman of the Election Commission Mahinda Deshapriya said the new date for polls would depend on how the pandemic situation evolved.
“Coronavirus will decide when we can hold the election again,” Deshapriya said, urging people to contribute to countering the virus. “I urge everyone to focus and support efforts to eradicate the virus.”
The commission had earlier said it was advised by health authorities that “there is no serious situation in the country to postpone the election.”
The chairman was addressing the media at the headquarters of the Election Commission in Colombo on Thursday afternoon right after the nominations were received on the last day.
Two days ago, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said in a message to the nation that elections would be held as scheduled on April 25 and asked the people to support Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapkasa.
The island has reported 53 virus cases, while 213 are being kept under observation in 16 hospitals for treating Covid-19.
The People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections Executive Director Rohana Hettiarachi told Arab News that his organization had already asked the commission to postpone the polls.
“At that time, the commissioner did not have the right to postpone it but the president did. Following the nomination, the president will not have the say on the postponement but now the commissioner derived the power to put off the elections for a  minimum period of 14 days,” Hettiarachi said.
He added that the maximum number of days is not mentioned in the election regulations, so voters will have to wait until a new date is announced. 
Muheed Jeeran, a Colombo-based political lobbyist and human rights activist, said that he welcomed the decision to postpone the polls and that the next date for general election should be kept unannounced as a national strategy to keep the candidates from conducting mass rallies.
“The reason to keep the next date unannounced is a strategy to lockdown the candidates who will definitely violate the lockdown and the government’s policy against holding public gatherings,” he said.
Executive Director of the National Peace Council Gihan Perera told Arab News that the situation with the virus was not conducive to hold an election as more than 14 million people will be mobilized for the exercise.
During his video conference with the SAARC leaders early this week, Rajapaksa said that Covid-19 had affected the country’s tourism and exports, which are major sections of the economy, but said the elections will go as planned.
With Thursday marking the last day to file nomination papers for elections, the commission said that 44 political parties and 31 independent groups had submitted nominations for 22 electoral districts.
Rajapaksa, who was elected in November, used his constitutional power to dissolve the 255-member parliament — in which the opposition held a majority — six months before the conclusion of its five-year tenure. He announced elections for April 25. Candidates were asked to file their nominations between March 12-19.
Rajapaksa rose to power criticizing the previous government for poor security and intelligence after the church bombings last April.
His brother, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, is currently the country’s prime minster. He is set to lead a newly formed coalition between Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), which was expected to sweep the polls.
A two-thirds majority in the parliament will allow the brothers to implement constitutional changes to increase presidential powers and influence, which former President Maithripala Sirisena reduced and gave to the parliament and independent commissions.


Militants attack in Indian Kashmir as it locks down for anniversary

Updated 23 min 17 sec ago

Militants attack in Indian Kashmir as it locks down for anniversary

  • Authorities blanketed Kashmir with troops, who laid out barbed wire and set up road blacks to prevent demonstrations
  • Kashmir is claimed in full by India and Pakistan, which have gone to war twice over it

SRINAGAR, India: Militants attacked Indian security forces with a grenade and gunfire in Kashmir on Wednesday, defying a strict security lockdown on the first anniversary of the government’s scrapping of the disputed Himalayan region’s autonomy.
There were no immediate reports of casualties, police said.
Authorities blanketed Kashmir with troops, who laid out barbed wire and set up road blacks to prevent demonstrations a year after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government stripped India’s only Muslim-majority state of its special rights.
The government said the change was necessary to develop the strife-torn region and integrate it with the rest of India but it infuriated many Kashmiris and neighboring Pakistan.
Some critics saw it as part of a pattern by the Hindu-nationalist government aimed at sidelining Muslims. The government denies that.
Kashmir is claimed in full by India and Pakistan, which have gone to war twice over it, and both rule parts of it. Militants have been fighting Indian rule in its part of Kashmir since 1989 in a conflict that has killed at least 50,000 dead, according to official figures.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was due to travel to the Pakistani-controlled part of Kashmir to mark the anniversary later on Wednesday.
He reiterated a long-standing Pakistani appeal for international intervention to help resolve the dispute over Kashmir between the nuclear-armed neighbors that has bedevilled their ties since the end of British colonial rule in 1947.
“It is imperative that the international community steps in immediately and backs its words of condemnation with practical steps that will force India to reverse its present course against the Kashmiri people,” he said in a statement.
India has ruled out any outside mediation over Kashmir.
In Srinagar, a handful of members of Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) gathered at their headquarters to unfurl an Indian flag to mark the occasion. The party had long campaigned for ending Kashmir’s special status.
Party spokesman Altaf Thakur said similar celebrations took place in all district headquarters in the territory. “It is an important and historic day for our party,” Thakur told Reuters.
Elsewhere in Srinagar, police and paramilitary troops enforced the strictest lockdown for several months, stopping public movements, including a proposed meeting of politicians.
“One year later the authorities are still too afraid to allow us to meet, much less carry out any normal political activity. This fear speaks volumes about the true situation on the ground in Kashmir,” former chief minister Omar Abdullah said on Twitter.
Last August’s change in status in Indian Kashmir was accompanied by a communication blackout, widespread restrictions and mass detentions, including of elected leaders.
Most of those measures have been eased, although Internet speeds are still restricted. More recently, many families have been confined indoors because of coronavirus lockdowns. (Additional reporting by Sheree Sardar in ISLAMABAD; Writing by Devjyot Ghoshal Editing by Sanjeev Miglani, Robert Birsel)