COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lankans are voting in parliamentary elections Wednesday that are expected to strengthen President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s grip on power. His party has campaigned for a strong government that will enable Rajapaksa to fulfill his presidential election pledges. Parts of the party are also calling for a two-thirds majority in Parliament so it can amend the constitution to restore presidential powers curbed by a 2015 constitutional change. The opposition party has focused on providing relief to those undergoing economic hardships because of the pandemic.
Some information on Sri Lanka and the election:
Sri Lanka, a teardrop-shaped island separated from India by the Palk Strait, has 22 million people. About 75% are from the Sinhala ethnic group, who are mostly Buddhists. Tamils, who are mainly Hindus, comprise about 15% of the population, while 9% are Muslims. Sinhala and Tamil are the official languages. Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity are the main religions. Sri Lanka’s main earnings of foreign exchange come from remittances from overseas workers, the tourism industry and tea exports.
Sri Lanka has faced two Marxist insurrections and a 26-year civil war with minority ethnic Tamil rebels in which hundreds of thousands of people were killed or disappeared. The Marxist rebels fought to create a socialist state, saying rural youth were deprived of their rightful place in society and faced discrimination in economic, educational and employment opportunities.
The Tamil rebels fought to create an independent state in the country’s north and east, accusing the Sinhala-controlled state of systemic marginalization. The country has enjoyed relative peace since government forces defeated the Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009.
Sri Lanka’s decade of peace since the end of the civil war was shattered by attacks on Easter Sunday in 2019. Some 269 people were killed when attackers from local Islamic extremist groups blew themselves up in three churches and three tourist hotels. Rajapaksa cast himself as the only leader able to keep Sri Lanka secure after the attacks serious intelligence lapses and discord in the then-government.
More than 16 million people are eligible to vote to elect 196 out of a total of 225 lawmakers. The others will be named from a national list according to the number of votes received by each party or independent group. A total of 7,452 candidates from 54 political parties and independent groups are contesting the election in 22 districts.
The main contenders include Mahinda Rajapaksa, a charismatic former president and the current president’s older brother, who is seeking reelection as prime minister. The 2015 constitutional changes strengthened the post of prime minister, which places Mahinda in a strong position to help his brother. Rajapaksa’s main rival is Sajith Premadasa, son of former President Ranasinghe Premadasa, who was assassinated by separatist rebels in 1993. Premadasa leads a political party that broke away from the opposition United National Party, the country’s largest party.
The polling will take place with coronavirus health measures in place, including social distancing, and voters are asked to bring their own pens to mark their ballots. Special booths have been set up for voters who are under quarantine. The election was originally scheduled for April 25, but was postponed twice because of the pandemic. Sri Lanka has largely contained the spread of the virus with 2,823 cases, including 11 deaths.