Rajapaksas aim for victory as Sri Lanka goes to polls on August 5

196 legislators in the 225-member House are to be elected

August 04, 2020 11:16 pm | Updated August 05, 2020 09:16 am IST - COLOMBO

Poll-ready:  An official carrying ballot papers in Colombo.

Poll-ready: An official carrying ballot papers in Colombo.

Over 16 million voters in Sri Lanka will on Wednesday have a chance to elect their representatives to Parliament in the all-island polls that the ruling Rajapaksa administration is aiming to sweep with a two-thirds majority.

Following President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s rise to power last year on a huge mandate, his Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP, or People’s Party) is seeking a decisive parliamentary majority to amend the Constitution, especially the 19th Amendment passed during the former government’s term that clips the President’s executive powers.

The election, which was postponed twice due to the coronavirus pandemic, will see the direct election of 196 legislators — while the remaining 29 will make it through a ‘National list’ — to the 225-member House. The additional measures to follow health guidelines while holding polls has cost the country’s Election Commission an additional LKR 3 billion, raising the total cost of elections to LKR 10 billion, according to officials.

Mr. Gotabaya’s elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, serving as the Prime Minister in the present caretaker government, is contesting Wednesday’s polls as the Prime Ministerial candidate. The Alliance led by SLPP is widely expected to do well in the polls, more so due to the government’s efforts in containing COVID19 in the island — 293 active cases as of Tuesday and 11 deaths — and a fragmented political opposition.

Also read: Sri Lanka issues strict health guidelines for election campaigning

Significantly, the two main political parties of Sri Lanka — the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP) — have been reduced to a rump this election, while the SLPP, launched in 2016 by the Rajapaksas, with a large chunk of the SLFP, is trying to consolidate power in the legislature.

Weak opposition

The SLFP, under former President Maithripala Sirisena, has realigned with the SLPP, and the UNP, suffered a big split. Its former deputy leader Sajith Premadasa broke away, taking along most former UNP MPs, and is contesting separately from the new Samagi Jana Balawegaya (United People’s Front), effectively challenging his former leader and ex-Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, fighting polls from the UNP.

Although it is not easy for a single party or alliance to secure a two-thirds majority under Sri Lanka’s Proportional Representation system of elections, the absence of anti-defection laws allows newly elected MPs from opposition parties to cross over to government.

The prospect of a two-thirds majority to the Rajapaksa administrations worries some sections, especially rights activists across the country, who fear that such power might threaten democratic freedoms, specially with no strong opposition. “When they [Rajapaksas] were in power the last time, the CID and intelligence officials would come and observe even small meetings of NGOs. That sort of surveillance might begin again,” said Gnanaveera Dissanayake, a human rights activist based in Kurunegala, in the North Western Province, from where PM Mahinda Rajapaksa is contesting.

Tamil vote

Meanwhile, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which had the largest representation of minority Tamils from the north and east in the last Parliament, is seeking to retrain its presence in Parliament.

Meanwhile, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which had the largest representation of minority Tamils from the north and east in the last Parliament, is seeking to retrain its presence in Parliament, even as it faces growing criticism in the electorate with 29 seats. Though many voters are disappointed with the lack of adequate development on the ground, contestant and former MP from Jaffna Dharmalingam Sithadthan said the TNA hoped that the people would still give it a good mandate to represent them as a block. “People know that we tried our best to engage with the previous government on constitutional reform. It is not fair to say we failed. It just shows that the Sinhala political leadership is reluctant to devolve more powers,” he said.

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