The Health Protection Agency (HPA), on Monday, confirmed the decision to change certain regulations pertaining to the local council elections, in response to concerns raised by the Elections Commission (EC).
According to the "Special Bill for the Local Council Elections 2020", HPA must formulate specific COVID-19 safety guidelines to be followed throughout the polling process.
However, EC has expressed concern regarding the agency's regulation since it was approved and published on the national gazette.
Speaking at the Parliamentary Committee on Independent Institutions, EC president Ahmed Shareef stated that the regulations set by HPA did not include any specific leniencies for the local council elections and instead consisted of the general safety guidelines currently being followed across the country to control the spread of COVID-19.
According to Shareef, this would impede efforts to conduct a free and fair election, as well as necessitating additional government expenditure.
Furthermore, Shareef stated that the regulations left room for candidates to lodge complaints regarding the election at court, and necessitating a second round of votes.
The EC president went on to highlight that foreign countries that had held elections amid the pandemic, including Sri Lanka, had loosened restrictions to facilitate the polls.
- No provisions or leniencies made for candidates to conduct campaigns, despite the law mandating a 28-day period for campaign activities.
- No provisions or quarantine leniencies enabling employees of resorts or liveaboards to cast votes
- Significant challenges in facilitating COVID-19 patients and individuals under quarantine to vote while remaining at isolation facilities
- Lower quantity of officials and observers that are allowed to be stationed at ballot boxes
- No leniencies in quarantine measures for EC staff that travel to islands in order to conduct training programmes
- No mention of permitting travel to islands under monitoring
Despite acknowledging the concerns raised by the elections watchdog, HPA's Director General of Public Health Maimoona Aboobakuru defended the safety regulations in place, highlighting that the sunset bill stipulated the formation of specific guidelines as a measure to ensure public safety. She also noted that the current COVID-19 situation in the country already necessitated stricter control measures.
She went on to highlight that HPA had already reduced the standard quarantine period from 14 days to 10 days, and that a further reduction would increase the risk of COVID-19 spreading within the population.
Similarly, Maimoona stated that allowing COVID-19 patients to travel between locations would also be dangerous.
However, she noted that HPA would discuss on methods to hold elections on islands which are under monitoring.
Following input from both EC and HPA, members of the Parliamentary Committee on Independent Institutions expressed their concerns and unanimously agreed on the necessity of HPA amending the safety regulations to facilitate the local council election.
The elections, initially scheduled for April 4, 2020, has been postponed by nearly a year due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. At present, EC intends to hold the election on April 3, 2020.
Over 4,172 candidates, including independent candidates and those representing political parties, are contesting in the upcoming local council elections. Till date, 71 candidates have withdrawn their candidacies.
In response to the indefinite delay, President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih ratified an amendment to Article 231 of the Constitution, extending the terms of incumbent councilors. He also ratified the legislation to delineate the powers of council members who remain in office during the interim period, thus allowing the continued functioning of a decentralised government until such a time the local elections can be held.