Rajapaksa brothers seek to consolidate power in Sri Lanka vote

Sri Lanka goes to the polls Wednesday to elect a new parliament as the ruling Rajapaksa brothers seek a fresh mandate to cement their grip on power.

The election has been postponed twice as a result of the coronavirus epidemic, but voting finally begins at 7 am (0130 GMT) Wednesday with strict hygiene measures in place to prevent the spread of the disease.

The Rajapaksa siblings are seeking a two-thirds majority in parliament 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.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, 71, won the presidential election in November and immediately appointed his older brother Mahinda, 74, a former president, as prime minister in a minority government.

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 by Muslim radicals 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.

– Masks and pencils –

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

The economy had scarcely revived 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 pandemic.

Testing figures are considered dubious by opposition parties, but authorities have reported just 11 deaths from less 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 to neighbouring India.

Measures to prevent virus transmission have complicated the vote — as well as making it the most expensive on record at a whopping 10 billion rupees ($54 million), the Election Commission said.

Voters must wear masks, observe social distancing at polling stations, and bring their own pen or pencil to mark their ballot papers.

Some 16.23 million out of Sri Lanka’s 21 million population are eligible to vote and just over 82 percent of the electorate participated in the last poll.

First results are expected by Thursday evening, with the final tally due late Friday.