Sri Lankans, wearing masks, flock to voting centres for parliament election amidst coronavirus pandemic

Polling will take place under strict safety guidelines. PHOTO: AFP

COLOMBO (REUTERS) - Sri Lankans lined up before polling stations opened on Wednesday, wearing masks and social distancing, 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 militant attacks on hotels and churches last year, claimed by Islamic State, followed painful lockdowns to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

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

The election has twice been postponed this year because of the coronavirus, but government and election officials said the country was in a better position now after a series of lockdowns.

Election officials wore transparent face shields while medical personnel were deployed to ensure voters kept strict rules to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

"There will be no chance of you getting infected by the coronavirus at polling stations," said the chairman of the Election Commission, Mahinda Deshapriya.

"The polling station is safer than the beach, the restaurant and the marketplace, it's totally corona free."

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

Rajapaksa, who was elected president in November, has claimed credit for controlling the outbreak with strict lockdowns.

He is hoping to install his older brother and 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.

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

"I need the power to implement my economic programme which you voted for," Rajapaksa, who won the presidency in November, told supporters last week.

The opposition, led by Sajith Premadasa, strongly opposes giving the presidency more power, warning it will make Sri Lanka an autocracy.

Votes are to be counted on Thursday when results should be known.

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