Colombo: Sri Lanka votes to choose a new parliament Wednesday as President Gotabaya Rajapaksa seeks to consolidate power and mitigate the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.
The vote is seen as a test of Rajapaksa’s handling of the outbreak which has battered the island’s export and tourism industries and strained its fiscal position. The country’s international airport remains closed to foreign tourists since a nationwide curfew imposed in March but most other curbs were removed in stages from mid-May in order to restart the economy and ease the burden on businesses.
President Rajapaksa — who has run a minority government since he won the November presidential poll and appointed his brother and former strongman leader Mahinda Rajapaksa as the prime minister — called for early elections in March.
The Rajapaksas, who leaned toward China during Mahinda’s decade as president which ended in 2015, want to win a two-thirds majority in order to push through constitutional changes that will allow the presidency to reclaim executive powers, including influence over the judiciary, military and bureaucracy. A constitutional amendment under former Prime Minister Ranil Wickresinghe’s United National Party government had clipped these.
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His Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna Party faces an even weaker opposition as Sajith Premadasa, his main rival in presidential elections, broke away from the UNP earlier this year and set up a new party with some of its younger and more progressive members.
”People generally believe that the government has done a good job in dealing with the Covid crisis,” said Jehan Perera, executive director at National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, but he noted the virus had brought other problems to the island nation. “Sri Lanka has been facing rising unemployment and inflation. Yet the government does not seem to have a concrete economic plan to resuscitate the economy.”
The question, Perera said, is whether the government will win an absolute majority.
Wednesday’s vote was initially set for April 25 and postponed twice due to health and safety concerns, resulting in an extended period when a caretaker government made policy decisions. Counting is scheduled for Thursday and the results are expected later that day. Voters will need to wear masks and adhere to safe distancing rules.
Rajapaksa, who was defense secretary under Mahinda and led the campaign to defeat the Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009, received strong support from the nation’s majority Sinhala-Buddhists in the presidential polls, while the minority Tamils and Muslims supported Premadasa.
Shortly after his victory, Rajapaksa announced tax cuts and a moratorium on debt for small businesses in order to kick-start the economy battered by political turmoil since late 2018 and last year’s Easter Sunday terror attacks. The turnaround in fiscal consolidation measures however led to the expiration in June of a $1.5 billion International Monetary Fund program without completing disbursements.
The election is likely to result in greater clarity on the government’s economic policies and help facilitate external financing, even as “agreeing on policies to place public finances on a consolidation path will be challenging,” according to Fitch Ratings which downgraded Sri Lanka’s sovereign rating to ‘B-’ from ‘B’, with a negative outlook, in April.
“From an investor perspective, it would be better that the government gets the majority as there would be coherence and policy direction,” said Perera, but added that the Rajapaksas’ aim of amending the constitution indicated that “they want to concentrate political authority and diminish the power of state institutions.”
In the meantime, India and China have both continued to jockey for influence, stepping up efforts to help Sri Lanka deal with the pandemic. While China has led in assisting the island nation on the medical front, India has been quicker to provide financial support, including a $400 million swap agreement.
“South Asian nations including Sri Lanka will engage China economically and politically because it provides them breathing space vis-a-vis larger nations like India and even the U.S.,” said Smruti Pattanaik, foreign policy research fellow at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses in New Delhi and author of ‘South Asia: Envisioning a Regional Future’. “So there will be increased competition to shore up interests by both China and the Quad nations — mostly India, US and Japan. This will be a balancing act for Sri Lanka’s new government.”-Bloomberg
–With assistance from Archana Chaudhary.
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