Sri Lankans voted on Wednesday to elect a new parliament, wearing masks and adhering to strict social distancing guidelines at polling stations across the country, in an election President Gotabaya Rajapaksa hopes will boost his powers.
More than 16 million people are eligible to vote in the island nation, whose economy is heavily dependent on tourism and has struggled deeply since deadly attacks on hotels and churches last year killed more than 260 people.
This year, strict curfews and lockdowns in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic have further slowed economic growth, with the World Bank estimating the country’s GDP could contract by as much as 3 percent in 2020.
Polls opened at 07:00 local time (01:30 GMT), with voters forming queues outside polling stations as per the Election Commission’s (EC) coronavirus guidelines. More than 750,000 Sri Lankans voted by postal ballot this year, according to the EC’s data.
Police spokesman Priyantha Weerasuriya said the voting, which ended at 5 pm, was largely peaceful and that police officers were escorting the ballot boxes to the counting centres.
Votes are to be counted on Thursday and the results should be known later that day.
Rajapaksa, 71, was elected in November after a landslide victory in a presidential poll, and is seeking a two-thirds majority for his Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and its Sri Lanka People’s Freedom Alliance (SLPFA) in the 225-member parliament.
More than 7,400 candidates are standing for 196 seats in Wednesday’s poll, with the remaining 29 to be filled by proportional representation based on the results of the election.
Gaining more than 150 seats in total would allow Rajapaksa to enact constitutional changes, and potentially revoke the country’s 19th constitutional amendment, a long-standing campaign promise from last year.
The amendment, enacted in 2015 following 10 years of rule by Gotabaya’s elder brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, curtailed the powers of the president, distributing them more evenly with the prime minister and other democratic institutions.
Mahinda Rajapaksa is the SLPFA’s prime ministerial candidate, and the current incumbent in the position after former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe resigned after his opposition United National Party’s (UNP) humiliating defeat in the November presidential poll.
The aftermath of the poll saw deepening divisions within the UNP, with the party’s presidential candidate Sajith Premadasa leading a split from the party in February, forming the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) and taking the majority of UNP legislators with him.
Strict social distancing rules
At the polls on Wednesday, election officials wore transparent face shields while medical personnel ensured voters adhered to strict social distancing rules to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
“There will be no chance of you getting infected by the coronavirus at polling stations,” said Election Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya, who was among the first to vote at a Colombo school early on Wednesday.
“The polling station is safer than the beach, the restaurant and the marketplace, it’s totally corona free.”
Sri Lanka had reported 2,834 cases of the coronavirus and 11 deaths as of Tuesday, as per the country’s health ministry.
Rajapaksa claimed credit for controlling the outbreak with strict lockdowns, and the relatively low numbers have seen his public support grow.
Election observers said it was unclear what effect, if any, the coronavirus outbreak would have on voter turnout, which is generally high in the island nation.
“Normally, Sri Lankans are much interested in three things: cricket, religious activities and elections,” Manjula Gajanayake, national coordinator for the Colombo-based Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) told Al Jazeera. “We always have a good turnout, but due to COVID19 it is very difficult to predict.”
Gajanayake said the CMEV was “satisfied” with the election commission’s guidelines for conducting the poll safely.
The poll had been twice-delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, with the opposition protesting against the extended period of direct rule by the president after he dissolved Parliament in March.
The Rajapaksa brothers have built their political careers as nationalist champions of the country’s majority Sinhala Buddhist community, which forms roughly 70 percent of the population.
They are best known for having crushed an ethnic minority Tamil armed separatist rebellion in the north of the country, which raged for more than three decades as armed groups fought for independence for the island’s north and east.
The conflict ended in 2009 when Mahinda Rajapaksa was president and Gotabaya was defence minister, amid allegations of torture, civilian killings and war crimes in the final stages of the war.
Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated in a presidential election in 2015, which saw former ally Maithripala Sirisena ascend as president, with the UNP in control in Parliament. Years of economic and governance mismanagement, however, saw the UNP perform poorly in the 2019 presidential poll.
Since coming to power, Gotabaya Rajapaksa said he has felt hobbled by the constitutional amendment that reduced his powers. He has appointed a number of presidential task forces, putting serving and former military officers in key bureaucratic and other positions.
“I need power to implement my economic programme which you voted for,” he told supporters last week.
Ahead of Wednesday’s poll, 10 international rights groups – including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders – called on Sri Lanka’s government to “end the targeted arrests, intimidation and threats against the lives and physical security of lawyers, activists, human rights defenders and journalists”.