Kerala all-party meet demands cancellation of Assembly byelections, postponement of local body polls

Published : September 11, 2020 18:51 IST

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. Photo: S. MAHINSHA

The Kerala government will convey to the Election Commission of India (ECI) the decision taken at an all-party meeting that byelections to the Kuttanad and Chavara Assembly seats scheduled in November need to be abandoned.

The meeting also decided that the local body elections that were to be held immediately so as to have new local governments in power by November, needed to be rescheduled by the State Election Commission, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said at a press conference.

The government convened the meeting of recognised political parties from the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF), the opposition United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the context of the ECI’s decision to conduct the two byelections in November itself, barely a few months before the next Assembly election is due and when the COVID-19 situation in the State continues to be grim.

The term of the 14th Kerala Assembly ends in May 2021 and the Assembly election is likely to be held by April. The model code of conduct would therefore come into effect by March 2021. If the byelections were held by mid-November, the two newly elected members would get barely three months to function. Given the huge expenditure and the other difficulties involved, it was felt the two byelections were best called off, the Chief Minister said.

“The Kuttanad seat fell vacant on December 20, 2019, following the death of (former Minister and NCP MLA) Thomas Chandy. The Chavara seat became vacant (following the death of the CPI(M) MLA Vijayan Pillai) from March 2020. As per law, such vacancies need to be filled within six months. But six months have passed after the vacancy arose in Chavara. Moreover, the COVID spread is continuing as a serious problem. The entire government machinery is involved in COVID related activities. We therefore put before the all party meeting the question whether it will be appropriate to concentrate on an election to choose a representative for barely three months, in such a context. We proposed that the elections to the two constituencies need only be held along with the next Assembly general elections. The parties were unanimous that the byelections should be cancelled,” he said.

The government had earlier informally sought the opinion of the Congress-led UDF and the BJP on the need to call off the two byelections. The Congress was of the view that it would agree to the government’s proposal only if the local body elections too were postponed. However, the BJP said that the local body elections should be held as per schedule.

The Chief Minister said the elections to the local bodies, including panchayats, municipalities and corporations, were imminent. He said: “As and when the term of these bodies end, new administrative bodies have to assume office by November 2020. That is a constitutional obligation. The term of those new bodies will be the next five years. We cannot compare the Kuttanad and Chavara Assembly byelections with elections to the local bodies. There are important differences between the two. You cannot compare the conduct of elections to the local bodies based on a constitutional obligation and the conduct of two byelections for electing representatives to the Assembly who will be in office only for three and a half months.”

According to the Chief Minister, if in July the average daily increase in COVID cases in Kerala was 618, in August it rose to 1,672. And, till September 9, it was 2,281. On September 10, 3,349 persons had been infected. Moreover, 90 per cent of the spread happened through contacts, especially primary contacts.

“COVID-19 is continuing as the main problem before us,” he said. “It remains a big challenge. It is natural for some people to ask whether the COVID situation is not equally valid in the case of local body elections too. It is a valid question. But the local body elections are a constitutional obligation that cannot be postponed. But still, the government has pointed out that within the limitations, it can be examined whether the election date can be extended a bit. The obligation to conduct elections to local bodies is based on Article 243(E) and Article 243(U). Therefore, it will be impossible to extend local body elections for long. But, given the COVID context, many parties expressed concern about the conduct of these elections. They also pointed out the difficulties involved in conducting the elections in the present circumstances. It is in agreement with this view that the all-party meeting decided to inform the State Election Commission to postpone the local body elections temporarily. But we do not intend that the date of the elections should be extended inordinately. That was the general opinion at the meeting.”

The new local bodies are to take charge by November 12. But in view of the difficulties, especially regarding the spread of COVID-19, the general opinion was that the election date could be extended for a while. The government would now inform the State Election Commission about the opinion that arose at the all-party meeting. On that basis, the commission would need to decide a suitable date for the election. “We can infer that it will be held after November,” the Chief Minister said.

In reply to questions, Pinarayi Vijayan clarified that it would be inappropriate for the government to suggest a date to the State Election Commission but that the general consensus at the meeting was surely that the election “should not be extended inordinately”. The rapid spread of the disease was the reason for the suggestion to extend the date, he said, as there were many practical difficulties, including the issue of senior citizens, of people in containment zones and so on who all need to vote. But the date needs to be fixed without much delay too.

The ECI had recently announced that 65 byelections to various State Assemblies would be held “around the same time” as the Bihar Assembly election which is to be conducted before November 29.

The earlier request to postpone the two byelections in Kerala made to the commission by the State Chief Secretary on August 21, quoting the possibility of floods in Kuttanad and the difficulty in redeploying government officials engaged in COVID-19 work, was not considered favourably. The commission informed the State Electoral Officer that no State had been exempted from conducting byelections.

Pinarayi Vijayan said he did not expect the commission to go against the consensus opinion of the State government and all political parties that the two Assembly byelections should be called off because of the special circumstances in the State and the fact that any person so elected would get only a very short tenure to function before the next Assembly elections were held.

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