Sri Lankans vote for new parliament, shrugging off Covid-19 fears

Sri Lankans maintain social distance and stand in a queue outside a polling station in Colombo on Wednesday. (AP pic)

COLOMBO: Sri Lankans shrugged off fears of the novel 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 Islamist militant attacks on hotels and churches last year followed by lockdowns to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

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%, which is good given the Covid situation,” said top Election Commission official Saman Sri Rathnayake.

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.

Election officials wore transparent face shields while medical personnel were deployed to ensure 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 the chairman of the Election Commission, Mahinda Deshapriya.

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 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.

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.

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.

Votes are to be counted on Thursday and the results should be known that day.