Rajapaksa family set to consolidate power in Sri Lanka after virus-hit polls

A Sri Lanka Special Task Force soldier stands guard as electoral officials collect ballot papers and boxes from a distribution centre in Colombo. — AFP pic
A Sri Lanka Special Task Force soldier stands guard as electoral officials collect ballot papers and boxes from a distribution centre in Colombo. — AFP pic

COLOMBO, Aug 6 — Sri Lankans voted in large numbers yesterday despite the coronavirus pandemic as the ruling Rajapaksa brothers sought to expand their mandate through the virus-delayed parliamentary polls.

The election — postponed twice due to the epidemic — closed at 5:00 pm local time (1130 GMT) after 10 hours of voting, with strict hygiene measures in place to prevent the spread of the disease.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his older brother Mahinda, the prime minister, are seeking a two-thirds parliamentary 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. Counting begins early today and the first results are expected by this evening.

The final results are due late tomorrow.

More than 70 per cent of the 16.23 million electorate was estimated to have turned out to vote, Election Commission chief Mahinda Deshapriya told reporters.

Turnout in the November presidential election was more than 83 per cent.

Deshapriya said there were “no major issues anywhere” to warrant the annulation of results from any booths, adding there were only minor complaints of voter intimidation.

People had begun lining up outside polling stations even before they opened across the island.

Deshapriya was among the first to vote, saying he wanted to send a message that it was safe and that authorities had made detailed preparations to guard against the virus.

Face masks were mandatory, voters were required to keep a social distance, and had to bring their own pen or pencil to mark their ballot papers.

The health measures made the poll Sri Lanka’s most expensive at 10 billion rupees (US$54 million), the Election Commission said.

Growing economic pain

After winning the presidency in November, Gotabaya appointed his brother Mahinda, 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.

Huge economic challenges await the new parliament. The economy had scarcely recovered from the blow of the deadly bombings before the coronavirus epidemic struck.

On Wednesday, official figures showed that growth contracted by 1.6 per cent in the first quarter of this year.

The Asian Development Bank expects the island’s economy to shrink by an unprecedented 6.1 per cent this year.

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.

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. — AFP

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