The much-awaited Supreme Court’s decision has helped to define the limbo Sri Lanka has found itself navigating due to delayed elections amidst the COVID-19 outbreak. It is now clear that the old Parliament will not be reconvened under any circumstances, and the task of running the country will essentially lie solely with the Executive until a new Parliament is convened. Therefore it is important to understand the implications of what this could mean to approximately 20 million people, especially in the context of public finance and its oversight.
Election Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya has already said a new date for the elections will be decided and announced in consultation with other members. However, Deshapriya on Monday acknowledged the Commission would need 60-70 days to ready for the Parliamentary Elections, insisting that such a timeline was essential to ensure guidelines of health authorities are respected, and for the additional support needed for the polls to be properly administered. Going by these statements it is feasible to expect the elections about mid-August or slightly afterwards. One of the biggest challenges in the intervening period is transparent and accountable governance of public finance. Under the Constitution, oversight of public finance lies with Parliament, but with Parliament remaining non-functional for six months due to the delay in elections, those responsibilities have rested and will continue to lie with the Executive. This has been a growing concern since March, when Parliament was dissolved as the first Vote on Account lapsed at the end of April.
Subsequently, a second Vote on Account was formulated and implemented by the Finance Ministry with no Parliamentary oversight, which raised concerns of transparency. With the second Vote on Account likely ending on 31 May, a third Vote on Account is expected to fill the gap till whenever elections are held. From that point onwards, the President can legally control matters of public finance for a further three months under the Constitution, even after the new Parliament is appointed and a new Budget approved, which means this entire process could even drag on till November. This is possibly the longest amount of time that has lapsed in Sri Lanka since the formulation of the Constitution with the Executive essentially having unilateral control over public finance. Even during the conflict, Parliament had to meet at least once a month to extend the State of Emergency. This is extremely problematic, because there are very few oversights outside of Parliament where public finance is concerned, and many of these are reactive. Even the offices of the Attorney General and Auditor General can rarely intervene at the formulation point of Government policies and projects. Other important instruments of transparency such as the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) and Committee on Public Accounts function as part of Parliament. Sri Lanka already has a long track record of bad policies and even worse implementation. Without sufficient oversight and transparency, there is always the danger of corruption, mismanagement, politicisation, and fiscal expediency filtering into the decision-making process at dire cost to public interest. Given Sri Lanka’s falling public revenues, COVID-19’s impact on the economy, and high debt, such failings could have serious consequences. Therefore the Supreme Court’s decision has placed greater responsibilities on the Executive, the Prime Minister, and the Cabinet to seriously and consistently promote transparency in the coming months and infuse Parliamentary-level oversight into the Government’s decision-making process. How these stakeholders fare deserves the attention of voters and promoting accountability in the absence of Parliament may be their lot as well.