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Sri Lanka in quandary over holding elections amid virus

Sri Lanka’s election commission is meeting with government officials on Monday to discuss ways to avoid a possible constitutional crisis if the country fails to hold parliamentary elections before a mandated deadline of June 2 because of the coronavirus.

The commission must decide whether to hold the polls, which could expose more people to the virus, or let the country plunge into its second constitutional crisis in less than two years.

Sri Lanka reported 24 new infections on Monday, its most in a single day. It now has a total of 295 confirmed cases, with seven deaths and 96 recoveries.

“We will be dealing with legal questions and whether it is safe,” said Ratnajeevan Hoole, one of three election commissioners.

“I don’t think we have the right to ask the people to go and expose themselves to the virus without expert opinion,” he said.

Also on Monday, the government lifted a daytime curfew in many areas of the country, except ones identified as high risk, to restart the economy.

In 2018, Sri Lanka came to a standstill for 52 days after then President Maithripala Sirisena sacked his prime minister. The crisis was ended by a Supreme Court decision that restored the prime minister.

Last month, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa dissolved the opposition-controlled Parliament six months early, hoping his party could win a majority in new elections.

He has complained that a 2015 constitutional change curtailed presidential powers and wants a constitutional amendment to strengthen his office, which would require the support of two-thirds of Parliament.

Rajapaksa announced elections for April 25, but the election commission postponed the polls indefinitely after the coronavirus spread and the government declared an island-wide curfew.

The constitution stipulates that a dissolved Parliament must be replaced within three months.

“There will be a constitutional crisis, because the Parliament has to meet within three months of the dissolution. If by the second of June the Parliament is not in a position to meet, there is a crisis," said Naganathan Selvakumaran, former dean of the college of law at the University of Colombo.

“The constitution has not provided an exit (from the crisis) because it has not anticipated such a situation,” he said.

Rajapaksa rejected the election commission's suggestion that the Supreme Court be asked to help find a solution.

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, the president's brother, said the election commission could not ignore its legal duty to schedule a new election because of “imaginary situations that may or may not come in the coming weeks or months.”

The government has also rejected suggestions by the opposition that presidential powers be used to recall the dissolved Parliament.

Opposition parties say an election during the pandemic poses too much risk since candidates typically rely upon large public rallies and door-to-door campaigning.

“Yes, we need an election and we want to have it as early as possible. However, it should be done in a responsible way without putting people at risk," said former opposition lawmaker Harsha de Silva.

Health authorities say they have managed to keep the spread of the virus under control, limiting its spread within the community through identification and isolation of patients and their contacts.

Anil Jasinghe, a top health official, said 12 of the country's 25 districts have not reported any patients and that the lockdown could be gradually eased.

Associated Press writer Bharatha Mallawarachi contributed to this report.