Sri Lanka is set to hold its parliamentary elections on August 5, the country’s National Election Commission (NEC) announced after it postponed the crucial polls twice due to restrictions linked to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We couldn’t hold the election before because of coronavirus. We have done our best. The parliamentary general election that was to be held on June 20 will be held on August 5,” NEC Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya told reporters on Wednesday.
He added that the decision was taken unanimously by all three members of the NEC, reports Efe news.
The elections were initially set to be held on April 25, after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa dissolved Parliament in March following his landslide victory in the November 2019 presidential polls.
The date was shifted to June 20 after lockdown measures were announced in mid-March.
The island nation has registered 11 deaths and around 1,860 cases of the new coronavirus as of Wednesday, with the rate of infection slowing in recent weeks and no new fatalities reported since the beginning of the month.
Authorities have gradually eased restrictions since the later half of May, and currently travel restrictions were in force only between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m.
Former lawmaker Bimal Rathnayake told Efe news that holding the election could not have been avoided any further, as according to the constitution the parliament has to be reconvened within three months of its dissolution, a period which has already expired on June 2.
“We think, if the numbers we are seeing are true, the government has controlled the coronavirus outbreak in the country to some extent,” he said.
However some parties and citizens’ groups have opposed the move citing health risks.
The national coordinator of the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence, Manjula Gajanayake, told Efe that elections should be held aiming for “zero casualties”.
He put the estimated cost of the polls at 7 billion LKR ($38 million), although adding that “this could increase because we have to have sufficient procedure in place during the pandemic”.
This is a massive expenditure for an economy struggling to recover from the lockdown, with crucial sectors such as tourism completely grinding to a halt.
The elections are set be held under strict health protocols with campaign meetings limited to a maximum of 100 people, while the NEC has recommended using the print and electronic media for propaganda and cutting down physical meetings to avoid exposure to the virus.
The Commission has also limited house-to-house campaigns to a maximum of three people.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa was sworn-in as president after an easy victory in the November 16, 2019 polls on the back of an agenda focused on national security.
Soon after, he appointed his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister and dissolved the opposition-majority Parliament.
The President’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party has to win majority in the house in order to secure the government’s full control in the semi-presidential representative democracy.