A Looming Constitutional Crisis, Courtesy Covid-19

This emergency has thrown open many a challenge. All of which were unforeseen

At this time of crisis, it is imperative that the government takes all necessary action. But that action must be on the basis of the rule-of-law

There is no gainsaying that Parliament ought not to have been dissolved on March 2, 2020. The outbreak of the Coronavirus – Covid-19 in China was reported prior to that

Sri Lanka is fighting hard, to the best of all its citizens’ abilities, to deal with the current global pandemic caused by the coronavirus. To its credit, Sri Lanka seems to be comparatively doing well. Let us hope that we in Sri Lanka could ensure a speedy end to the threat posed by the said Covid-19. However, there is a growing acceptance that Sri Lanka was tragically still late in focusing its full attention on the prevention and management of this pandemic. It is apparent that priorities were divided within the government vis-à-vis ensuring democratic governance and dealing with the health situation of the country caused by the pandemic. The President appears to have made decisions on the basis of political advise rather than public health advise. Despite introducing a wide range of severe social distancing measures, he did not take measures to prevent public servants from organising the election campaign or nominations on March 19,2020 for parliamentary elections.
At this time of crisis, it is imperative that the government takes all necessary action. But that action must be on the basis of the rule-of-law. Otherwise, inadvertently, the public health response and economic relief may be delayed or affected. Second, as Asia’s oldest democracy, we have proved that we can meet any challenge – from natural disasters like the tsunami, insurgencies or terrorism – within the framework of a constitutional democracy.
When this unprecedented health and economic crisis is upon us, we must ensure that all arms of the government are fully operational to meet any eventuality. This is certainly no time for a constitutional crisis. There should not be any backsliding of democracy. Unfortunately, unless the President takes immediate corrective action, a constitutional crisis – the second in two years – will be added to these extremely grave health and economic crises.
The term of the 15th Parliament should have ended on September 1, 2020 but the President, exercising his constitutionally permitted discretionary powers, dissolved Parliament by Proclamation six months early, with effect from March 2, 2020 by Gazette Extraordinary No. 2165/8-2020. In that Proclamation the President also fixed April 25, 2020 as the date for the General Election and May 14, 2020 as the date on which the newly elected Parliament shall meet as required by article 70 (5)(a) of the Constitution.
Elections Commission
Further to the above Proclamation issued by the President, the Elections Commission, as required by law, fixed March 19, as the last date for nominations. Despite social distancing measures being in force, nominations for the Parliamentary Election were duly received by the respective returning officers.
At the conclusion of receiving nominations and declaring the number of nominations received by returning officers, the Elections Commission is required to publish a ‘notice of poll’ through a gazette notification in terms of Section 24 of the Parliamentary Elections Act.
The Elections Commission did not publish such a ‘notice of poll’. On the contrary, it published what it called a ‘notice of no poll’.
In the case of any emergency or unforeseen circumstances, Section 24(3) of the Parliamentary Elections Act empowers the Elections Commission to postpone the election to another day. However, the Act does not empower the Elections Commission to postpone the election without fixing another date.
The Elections Commission, however, has stated in the Gazette Extraordinary No. 2167/19 – 2020 and dated 21-03-2020 that the said poll cannot be held on the April 25, 2020 due to the Covid-19 outbreak in Sri Lanka. It also stated that it would appoint a day that falls after fourteen days from April 30, 2020 as the day for the said poll.
In other words, according to the Elections Commission, this future Parliament, cannot meet on May 14, 2020 as notified by the President in his proclamation dissolving the Parliament.
The Elections Commission has requested the President to seek the opinion of the Supreme Court as to the course of action he should take in this situation. Unless Parliament reconvenes, the Elections Commission has a constitutional duty to complete polls by June 2. That is its sole mandate. Unless the President acts now, social distancing measures will have to be suspended for campaigning and the conduct of the poll. The President has a significantly more expansive mandate. Public health, economic succour or other considerations are for the President to be concerned with and take necessary action.
What can the President do?
The President may or may not seek an opinion of the Supreme Court, as it comes within his discretion. We feel that he should not exercise his discretion in seeking the Supreme Court’s opinion. Rather he should avoid any doubt, uncertainty and uphold constitutional democracy and the rule-of-law by rescinding Gazette Extraordinary 2165/8-2020.
As the President dissolved Parliament with effect from March 2, in terms of Article 70(5)(a) that requires “… shall summon the new Parliament to meet on a date not later than three months after the date of such Proclamation”, the latest possible day on which the new Parliament must meet is June 2, 2020. This date is absolute. But no free and fair election can practically be held in time for the new Parliament to meet. This leads up the current imbroglio.
The Constitution, in terms of Article 33(1)(a) and (d), cast a prime duty upon the President to uphold the Constitution and on the advise of the Elections Commission, ensure the creation of proper conditions for the conduct of free and fair elections and referendum.
In our opinion the President has the following options within the existing
constitutional framework.
Option I: Issue a New Proclamation
Wait till the 3rd week of April, then, in consultation with the Elections Commission, issue a proclamation fixing a new date for the summoning of the new Parliament on or before June 2, 2020. This permits the Elections Commission to publish a new date for the poll.
This option is wrought with the practical challenges of ensuring a free and fair election as required by the Constitution. In the unlikelihood of the realistic end of the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic by the end of April and allowing Elections Commission personnel to prepare for the poll and create a conducive environment for the candidates and parties to campaign and hold a free and fair election, in reality, this option is no option at all.
Option II: Invoke Article 70(7) to Revive the 15th Parliament 
Under Article 70(7) of the Constitution, if the President is satisfied that an emergency has arisen of such a nature that an earlier meeting of Parliament is necessary, he is empowered to summon Parliament any time after its dissolution to deal with such an emergency. Parliament so summoned can go on till the conclusion of such emergency.
Option III: Rescind the Election Gazette
The President has the power to rescind his Proclamation dissolving Parliament dated March 2, 2020. This can be done by another Gazette notification issued under the hand of the President. If this is done it would restore the Parliament which was originally elected by the People till September 1, 2020.
There is nothing in law prohibiting the President from exercising the above option. An option the President alone could use without recourse to anything or anyone else. If that option is resorted to and the Parliament is re-summoned, it would be a lawful and fully-fledged Parliament. Such a Parliament could do its business as usual till September 1, 2020. By which time, one could realistically hope that the pandemic would have abated both locally and globally, or the world would have geared itself to deal with it or counter it medically and peoples’ lives could have been restored to some degree of normalcy.
This would also mean that the next election could be held any time prior to December 1, 2020. This later date gives hope that Sri Lanka would be out of the pandemic and in an environment more conducive to hold a free and fair election. It would undoubtedly be constitutionally proper.
Option IV: Declare a State of Emergency under Article 155 of the Constitution
The President can also declare a State of Emergency under Section 2 of Public Security Ordinance (deemed an Act of Parliament under article 155). Such a Proclamation requires the summoning of Parliament to continue its operation, generating an unquestioned constitutional duty to summon Parliament. It would also give the President the powers to ensure a legal basis for some of the preventative health measures that are currently being used.
Analysis of the Options
The President may not have been fully apprised of the gravity of the pandemic when he issued his Proclamation declaring early elections. However, as the unprecedented nature of the emergency is now clear to all, it is his constitutional duty to invoke the relevant provisions in the Constitution relating to the Emergency and prevent a constitutional crisis at this time. Therefore, Option II, invoking 70(7) to revive the 15th Parliament may be the most constitutionally proper and practically prudent course of action.
We will run out of time if the President doesn’t exercise this discretion without delay.  It will be a missed opportunity to show the world, how as a nation, we have handled the constitutional crisis, even during the global crisis, within the framework of the Constitution. Invoking Section 70(7) enables this.
Inapplicability of the ‘doctrine of necessity’ 
An opinion is floated to use the principle of the ‘Doctrine of Necessity’ as a justification to deviate from the constitutional provisions. It is an accepted principle and settled law that the doctrine of necessity could be invoked when there is no alternative course of action available as provided by the law. In the current context there are express constitutional provisions available to be used to act within the constitution. Therefore, the applicability and/or use of the doctrine of necessity do not arise. Any advise contrary would be misconceived in law.
Section 113 of the Parliament Elections Act
A few politicians are said to have interpreted Section 113 of the Parliamentary Elections Act as vesting powers with the President to hold the election at a suitable future date overriding, inter alia, Article 70(5) of the Constitution. This interpretation is unconstitutional. It would be a dangerous attempt to twist and distort the law to flagrantly violate the express provisions of the Constitution to suit one’s partisan political agenda. Section 113 of the Parliament Elections Act only deals with a situation where elections are held but incomplete due to non-holding of the election in a specific district.
It is elementary to understand the difference between holding of an election per say, albeit with some defects, and not having the ‘notice of poll’ at all.
Reconvening Parliament is Imperative 
There is no gainsaying that Parliament ought not to have been dissolved on March 2, 2020. The outbreak of the Coronavirus – Covid-19 in China was reported prior to that. It was declared a pandemic by the WHO on March 11, 2020 preceded by its announcement in January that it is a serious public health emergency of international concern. SAARC leaders including our President in their virtual deliberations, held prior to March 19, 2020, acknowledged the seriousness of the pandemic. Thus the President has demonstrated and acknowledged the emergency and the existence of this unforeseen emergency subsequent to his dissolution of Parliament on March 2, 2020.
The Elections Commission, the moment it could assume power legally, upon the conclusion of the nominations on March 19, 2020 declared that the Parliamentary Election cannot be held on April 25,  2020 as envisaged in the Presidential proclamation. Thereafter, the President has caused several measures amounting to a shut-down of sorts of the country including widespread ‘curfews’ and requests to work from home. All this is in clear and unambiguous acknowledgement of prevalent pandemic causing health hazards of unprecedented proportions.
This emergency has thrown open many a challenge. All of which were unforeseen. It has long before metamorphosed into a global challenge where governments and entire countries are reeling. Thousands are perishing on a daily basis. It would be foolhardy and or preposterous to assume that in the given the context the postponed elections could be held prior to the end of May 2020 or the new Parliament could be summoned before June 2, 2020.
The Elections Commission too had indicated given the status of the pandemic it is impractical to hold elections anytime soon. Sri Lanka, at the time of writing, has not even gotten to the state where the ‘flattening of the curve’ has commenced. Let us hope that happens soon. In the meantime, any attempt to conduct the said poll or to entertain thoughts of it would be in total disregard to the public good and would be to endanger the citizens’ health and wellbeing.
Hence the measures that are needed to be taken to successfully deal with the pandemic and exigencies created thereby should be done collectively and in terms of the law. Due to the prolonged space of time envisaged – more than three months – to hold the Parliamentary elections makes this all the more imperative. The President, being the head of the Executive, cannot perform the functions of the legislature.
As it stands, the elections have to be postponed well beyond June 1, 2020. As it is, the government has no legal sanction to expend public finance beyond April 30, 2020. There are voices claiming that available funds are not sufficient to deal with the issue at hand even prior to April 30, 2020. In fact, all evidence suggests that a breach of the borrowing limit set by Parliament will occur imminently – well before April 30.  That means, the government will have no means of raising funds necessary for fighting the pandemic and providing economic relief.
New legislation may be needed to deal with the pandemic and its aftermath more effectively. All this behooves the President to reconvene the dissolved Parliament using the powers vested in him by the Constitution as opposed to ignoring such Constitutional responsibility or to resorting to extra-legal measures.
The majority of the populace is seemingly content with the President and government’s handling of the pandemic thus far.  That is no reason for the President or the caretaker government to overlook and or violate the constitutional requirements to uphold the Constitution of our democratic republic, the oldest in Asia. One can’t be complacent and be an onlooker when autocratic trends set in because it is the legislature, to which the people of this country have entrusted the power to make laws and to be the guardians of their finances.
The Constitution has provided exactly for such exigencies. It is to deal with such extreme situations that provisions have been incorporated in the Constitution for it to be brought back to life while entrusting the keys to do so with the President. The President should exercise this power in the interest of justice and equity. The situation demands that he does this forthwith.
Thus, it leaves the President with no option but to reconvene the dissolved Parliament. It is imperative that he does so.  He could lawfully dissolve such a Parliament once the crisis is over. The government and President need not unduly worry about their numbers in Parliament. Almost every single political party that is represented in Parliament has publicly committed to support the government in these difficult times. On the other hand, getting Parliament to sanction public finance as well as other needed legislations to deal with the current crisis more efficiently would not only credit the government as having up held the rule of law and enhance its legitimacy, despite being a minority government.
Any other course of action would be a serious violation of the Constitution. Article 70 of the Constitution has been interpreted in detail by a full bench of the Supreme Court in the Fundamental Right cases that were filed successfully challenging the dissolution of Parliament by the then President in
October 2018.
In any event, if, by April 30, the Elections Commission fails to publish a new date for the poll falling between May 14, and June 1, then the proclamation of the President dissolving Parliament will become void.
Against this backdrop, if Sri Lanka is to remain a democratic country that upholds the rule of law the summoning of the Parliament is a sine qua non. The sooner it is done the better. The President can choose in what way he wants to reconvene the said Parliament. However, it is our view that the best course of action is invoking Article 70(7) of the Constitution. This requires the minimum action, sans any complication, requires no complex or strenuous legal arguments and is well within the constitutional powers of the President. It is also the only option that is, constitutionally speaking his express and positive duty.
Once reconvened, the 15th Parliament could run its due course provided the President does not wish it to be so. The Parliament, as the sole authority and guardian of Public Finance, could regulate and provide legitimate authority to the government to manage the public finances. It can correct and rectify any unconstitutional fiscal handling like what the Secretary to the Treasury purports to do, wrongfully, by his letter dated March 10, 2020, what could lawfully be done in terms of Article 150(3) only ‘from the date on which the new Parliament is summoned to meet’. It could pass necessary legislation to cater to the exigencies that arise due to adverse and unforeseen impacts of the pandemic and to fill in the lacuna if any in other spheres including in relation to holding of elections. Further it would provide with the definite period of time until almost the end of 2020 to hold a free and fair election, constitutionally. It would also provide a robust and effective system of deliberation and checks-and-balances to ensure that the interests of all sections of society are represented in decision-making.
Reconvening Parliament by the President forthwith would ensure that, more importantly, we would still be governed in terms of the law and upholding the rule of law, which is a prerequisite for a democracy. On the contrary citizens being compelled to have recourse to the Supreme Court either to have the Gazette dissolving the Parliament on March 2, 2020 invalidated or to force the hands of the President to summon Parliament in terms of Article 70(7) would mean that, sadly, we have not learnt our constitutional lessons.
The writers are Director- International Affairs and Secretary General respectively of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.