Sri Lankans shrug off coronavirus fears to vote for new Parliament

People waiting to cast their vote at a polling station during Sri Lanka's parliamentary election in Colombo yesterday. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is seeking a two-thirds majority for his party in Parliament to enable constitutional reforms, so he c
People waiting to cast their vote at a polling station during Sri Lanka's parliamentary election in Colombo yesterday. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is seeking a two-thirds majority for his party in Parliament to enable constitutional reforms, so he can implement his economic and national security agenda.PHOTO: REUTERS

COLOMBO • Sri Lankans shrugged off fears of the coronavirus and streamed into polling centres yesterday 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 Islamist militant attacks on hotels and churches last year, followed by lockdowns to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Mr 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.

Voters, who wore masks and kept 1m apart, seemed keen to have their say with a third of the electorate casting ballots in the first four hours, the Election Commission said.

"If they come at this rate we should get between 65 and 70 per cent, which is good given the Covid-19 situation," said top Election Commission official Saman Sri Rathnayake.

Sri Lanka reported 2,828 cases of the coronavirus and 11 deaths as of Tuesday, which is low compared with other South Asian countries.

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

"The polling station is safer than the beach, the restaurant and the marketplace," said Election Commission chair Mahinda Deshapriya.

Mr Rajapaksa won the presidency last November vowing to restore relations with China, which had been strained by disputes over some Chinese investments.

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

AS SAFE AS IT GETS

The polling station is safer than the beach, the restaurant and the marketplace.

MR MAHINDA DESHAPRIYA, chairman of the Election Commission, on the safety measures at polling stations.

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 Mr Gotabaya 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.

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

Votes are to be counted today and the results should be known later the same day.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 06, 2020, with the headline 'Sri Lankans shrug off coronavirus fears to vote for new Parliament'. Print Edition | Subscribe