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Rajapaksa brothers seek to consolidate power in Sri Lanka vote

Fathmath Shaahunaz
05 August 2020, MVT 12:44
Sri Lanka's President Gotabaya Rajapaksa waves as he leaves a polling station after casting his ballot in the parliamentary election in Colombo on August 5, 2020. - Sri Lankan voters cast their ballots on August 5 for a new parliament as the ruling Rajapaksa brothers seek a fresh mandate to cement their grip on power. (Photo by Ishara S. KODIKARA / AFP)
Fathmath Shaahunaz
05 August 2020, MVT 12:44

Sri Lankan voters cast their ballots Wednesday for a new parliament as the ruling Rajapaksa brothers seek a fresh mandate to cement their grip on power.

The election had been postponed twice due to the coronavirus epidemic, but voting finally got under way at 7:00 am (0130 GMT) with strict hygiene measures in place to prevent the spread of the disease.

People began lining up outside polling stations even before they opened across the island where 16.23 million out of the 21 million population are eligible to vote.

Voters must wear face masks, keep a social distance and bring their own pen or pencil to mark their ballot paper under rules to prevent transmission of the virus.

The measures have made it the most expensive vote on record at 10 billion rupees ($54 million), the Election Commission said.

Among the first to vote was Election Commission chairman Mahinda Deshapriya who cast his ballot at Colombo's Lindsay Girls' school.

"This is the first time since 2011 that I went to a polling booth as a voter," said Deshapriya, 65, who has not participated in elections as head of the commission.

"I wanted to demonstrate that it is safe to go out and vote."

There were fears that, compared to the 82 percent participation in the November poll, the threat of the epidemic would reduce voter turnout - which could work in favour of the government.

- Impossible two-thirds majority? -

The Rajapaksa siblings, of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), are seeking an ambitious two-thirds majority to roll back constitutional changes introduced by the previous administration that limit the president's powers.

Analysts expect them to easily secure a majority in the 225-seat parliament. First results are expected by Thursday evening, with the final tally due late Friday.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, 71, appointed his older brother Mahinda, 74, a former president, as prime minister in a minority government after he won the presidency in November and dissolved the then-parliament.

Since then Sri Lankans have largely embraced their populist platform, which emerged from a wave of nationalism in the wake of the deadly 2019 Easter bombings that killed 279 people.

The brothers are also viewed as heroes by the Sinhalese majority for orchestrating the military's ruthless campaign that ended the decades-long Tamil separatist war in 2009 during Mahinda's presidency.

The SLPP, a new party led by Mahinda Rajapaksa which ensured Gotabaya’s presidential victory, has never been represented on the parliament but is tipped to win the election due to a weaker, divided opposition - the main opposition United National Party (UNP) of former prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, and Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), a breakaway faction of UNP led by Sajith Premadasa, who lost the presidential polls to Gotabaya.

Although the SJB, which has also never been represented in parliament before, is expected to win the second highest number of seats with UNP expected to come in third, the division between the country’s minority Tamils and Muslims, who voted against Gotabaya in the presidential elections, is expected to result in a comfortable win for the SLPP.

However, despite their goal to win two-thirds majority, analysts state that the ruling party is unlikely attain as many seats due to the Proportional Representation (PR) system, which was introduced in the 1989 parliamentary polls.

- Economic woes -

Even with a super-majority, the incoming administration faces challenges.

The economy had scarcely recovered from the blow of the 2019 bombings before the coronavirus epidemic struck, prompting lockdowns that have still not been fully lifted.

Still, Sri Lanka appears to have escaped the worst of the contagion.

Test result figures are considered dubious by opposition parties, but authorities have reported just 11 deaths from fewer than 3,000 cases.

"They will win by a huge margin but the economic and social problems post-COVID-19 will be huge," political analyst Kusal Perera told AFP.

The Asian Development Bank expects the island's economy to shrink by an unprecedented 6.1 percent this year.

Mahinda is expected to lean heavily on China for economic assistance -- as he did during a decade as president until 2015 -- but also increasingly on neighbouring India.

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