Sri Lanka president pledges election at ‘earliest opportunity’

Newly-elected Rajapaksa promises to ‘consult the people’ as soon as possible as he eyes early parliamentary election.

Sri Lanka''s new President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (R) and his Prime Minister brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, pose
Gotabaya Rajapaksa, right, has named his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, left, as prime minister [Ishara S Kodikara/AFP]

Newly-elected Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has announced he will call a snap parliamentary election “at the earliest opportunity” as he seeks to turn the country’s parliamentary arithmetic in his favour after winning office last weekend.

President Gotabaya said on Friday he would “consult the people” as soon as possible under Sri Lanka‘s constitution after appointing a new 16-member interim cabinet headed by his brother Mahinda, a former president who will now serve as prime minister and finance minister.

Sri Lanka’s existing parliamentary term ends next August, and the constitution allows the president to dissolve the legislature in March and go for an election.

The president will hope to ride a wave of popularity and secure a majority for his Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party in the 225-member Parliament of Sri Lanka during the poll. Currently, the Rajapaksas and their allies have just 96 legislators, making it hard for them to pass legislation.

Former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe of the United National Party (UNP) stepped down on Thursday to make way for Mahinda to form an interim government.

‘Reach out to Muslims, Tamils’

A former war-time defence secretary, Gotabaya won the presidency by a sizeable margin in the November 16 presidential vote, defeating former Cabinet Minister for Housing Sajith Premadasa, the candidate of the UNP-led coalition.

In the lead-up to the presidential vote, Rajapaksa’s campaign stressed on his credentials as the defence secretary which 10 years ago brought to a close the bloody 26-year civil war between government forces and Tamil rebels.

The new president has pledged to fight corruption and improve security in the wake of a series of bombings on Easter Sunday that killed more than 260 people, responsibility for which was claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) armed group. The government, however, blamed a local Muslim group for the worst bombings since the end of the civil war in 2009.

The International Monetary Fund said earlier this month that Sri Lanka’s economy was slowly recovering from the devastating effects of the April 21 attacks that hit the tourism sector – a major revenue earner – hard.

Rights groups have long called for investigations into alleged rights abuses committed during the Rajapaksas’ previous terms in power, including United Nations allegations that more than 40,000 people were killed by security forces in the final days of the country’s civil war in the north, as Tamil rebels took shelter among civilians.

The new president also faces a civil suit in the United States for allegedly ordering the torture of a Tamil man and several others when he was the defence secretary.

Rajiva Wijasinha, a former member of Parliament, said the new president’s biggest challenge would be to ease tensions heightened by the attacks.

“The important thing for this government to do is to work with the Tamil and the Muslim people at grassroots level because I don’t think they are interested in separatism or terrorism or fundamentalism,” Wijasinha told Al Jazeera from Colombo.

“They must reach out to the Muslims and the Tamils,” he added.

Source: News Agencies