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Police officers wearing face masks direct voters at a polling station during Sri Lanka’s parliamentary election in Colombo on Friday. Photo: Reuters

Sri Lanka heads to polls amid pandemic as China-friendly Rajapaksa brothers seek to consolidate power

  • President Gotabaya Rajapaksa wants a two-thirds parliamentary majority to enable reforms that make his office more powerful
  • He won the presidency in November vowing to restore relations with China - strained by disputes over Chinese investments
Sri Lanka

Sri Lankans shrugged off fears of coronavirus and streamed into polling centres on Wednesday to elect a new parliament that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa hopes will clear the way for him to boost his powers.

The tourism-dependent island nation of 21 million people has been struggling since deadly East Sunday attacks on hotels and churches by Islamist militants last year were followed by lockdowns to slow the spread of the pandemic.

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Rajapaksa is seeking a two-thirds majority for his party in the 225-seat parliament to enable constitutional reforms to make the presidency more powerful so he can implement his economic and national security agenda.

Voting was slowed down because of strict health guidelines that includes sanitisation measures, social distancing and compulsory face masks, with polling stations open an additional hour, to 5pm, to help accommodate more voters.

Voters get their fingers inked by electoral officials after casting their ballots in the parliamentary election in Colombo on Friday. Photo: AFP
The election was originally scheduled for April but was twice postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. Sri Lanka has largely contained the spread of the virus with 2,834 confirmed cases including 11 deaths.

Election officials wore transparent face shields while medical personnel were deployed to ensure voters abided by rules to prevent the spread of contagion.

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“The polling station is safer than the beach, the restaurant and the marketplace,” said the chairman of the Election Commission, Mahinda Deshapriya.

Rajapaksa won the presidency in November vowing to restore relations with China, which had been strained by disputes over some Chinese investments.
Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa waves as he leaves a polling station after casting his vote on Friday. Photo: AP

He is hoping to install his older brother who is also a former president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, as prime minister.

The brothers built their political careers as nationalist champions of the majority Sinhalese, Buddhist community.

They are best known for crushing ethnic minority Tamil separatist insurgents who battled for decades for a homeland in the island’s north and east.

The 26-year civil war ended in 2009 when the elder Rajapaksa was president amid allegations of torture and killings of civilians in the final stages of the conflict.

A Sri Lankan Army gunner directs a burst of machine gun fire at Tamil separatist fighters during clashes in 2008. Photo: EPA

Since then, governments led by the brothers’ opponents have sought to reduce the power of the president to prevent abuses and instead strengthen independent commissions appointed by parliament.

But Rajapaksa said he has felt hobbled since he took over as president.

“I need power to implement my economic programme which you voted for,” he told supporters last week.

At least four members of the family are running in the parliamentary election, and strong support for the Rajapaksas’ party could add to their political dynasty.

Leader of Sri Lanka’s main opposition party Sajith Premadasa, centre, waves to supporters at a campaign rally on Sunday. Photo: EPA

The opposition led by Sajith Premadasa, son of assassinated president Ranasinghe Premadasa, has warned of the risk of autocracy if the presidency is invested with more powers.

More than 16 million people are eligible to vote to elect 196 lawmakers, with the rest being named from a national list according to the number of votes received by each party or independent group.

Votes are to be counted on Thursday and the final results are expected on Friday.

Additional reporting by DPA, Associated Press

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Rajapaksa brothers pin hopes on votes