Sri Lanka votes in pivotal election following coronavirus delay | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 05.08.2020
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Sri Lanka votes in pivotal election following coronavirus delay

The Rajapaksa brothers could consolidate their hold on political power as Sri Lanka goes to the polls following months of delay due to coronavirus. The country has been without a parliament since March.

Sri Lankans went to polls on Wednesday for parliamentary elections that had been pushed back from April by the coronavirus pandemic. The small island nation has been functioning without a parliament for the past several months. 

Wearing face masks and maintaining physical distancing, voters used their own pens to mark ballot papers as they cast their vote.  

Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who won November's presidential polls, is hoping to secure a two-thirds majority in parliament. This would give Rajapaksa and his appointed prime minister, elder brother and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, sweeping powers to govern the nation.

In Sri Lanka's system of government, the president appoints a prime minister, and they share executive power.

The votes will be counted on Thursday, and results are expected by Friday.

In November, President Rajapaksa took office with an opposition-majority parliament

In November, President Rajapaksa took office with an opposition-majority parliament

Elections delayed by coronavirus

In November, President Rajapaksa took office with an opposition-majority parliament. He dissolved the parliament on March 2, a move allowed by Sri Lanka's constitution, and called for new elections on April 25.

However, as the coronavirus pandemic began to spread around the world, the date for elections was pushed back to June 20, and again to August 5.

Read more: How Sri Lanka successfully curtailed the coronavirus pandemic

"There was nothing controversial about the dissolution of the parliament, as the constitution has provisions that allow for it," Asanga Welikala, a Sri Lankan constitutional law expert and lecturer in public law at the University of Edinburgh, told DW.

"However, the exercise of this power is subject to a very important rule — the election and first meeting of the new parliament must be held within three months," he added.

This delay in holding elections has left Sri Lanka without a functioning parliament — and the Rajapaksas without any check on their power — for over five months. 

Watch video 02:15

Sri Lanka to hold elections with health measures in place

Who are the political players?

"We hope the new parliament will be more representative of Sri Lanka — with more women, more youth, more people from marginalized communities," Ruki Fernando, a Colombo-based human rights activist, told DW.

"Stronger representation from smaller and new political parties, regional parties and independent groups is crucial."

Riding the majority Sinhalese Buddhist vote, the Rajapaksa brothers are expected to lead their party, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), to victory. 

Mahinda Rajapaksa, who has been the face of the SLPP during the campaign, served as Sri Lanka's president for nine years and is credited with crushing Tamil separatists and bringing the country's 26-year civil war to an end.

Read more: Sri Lanka: The Rajapaksa brothers walk a diplomatic tightrope with China and India

The two other major players are the United National Party (UNP), one of the oldest parties in Sri Lanka, and Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), a breakaway faction of the UNP.

The UNP is led by former Premier Ranil Wickramasinghe, while the leader of the opposition, Sajith Premadasa, is at the helm of SJB.

However, intense infighting between both parties could mean less competition for the Rajapaksas' SLPP.

Mahinda Rajapaksa, who has been the face of the SLPP during the campaign, served as Sri Lanka's president for nine years and is credited with crushing Tamil separatists and bringing the country's 26-year civil war to an end.

Mahinda Rajapaksa served as Sri Lanka's president for nine years and is credited with bringing its 26-year civil war to an end

Lifting limitations on presidential power?

With a two-thirds majority in Sri Lanka's 225-member parliament, the Rajapaksa brothers are looking to strike down constitutional limitations on presidential power.

These limitations followed the 2015 election, during which Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated by Maithripala Sirisena. The Sri Lankan parliament then passed the 19th amendment, aimed at curtailing the powers of the president.

The SLPP now wants to capitalize on the momentum the party is riding on following Rajapaksa's landslide win in the November presidential elections. 

A security-driven narrative shaped the SLPP's election platform, as Gotabaya Rajapaksa was seen as the strong leader Sri Lanka needed following the Easter attacks on churches and hotels last year.

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