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Sri Lanka

Minorities await Sri Lankan election result with trepidation

A big victory for President Rajapaska's pro-Sinhala Buddhist party is likely to see Tamils and Muslims further marginalized

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Minorities await Sri Lankan election result with trepidation

An election official carries a ballot box to a main counting centre after Sri Lanka's parliamentary election voting closed in Colombo on Aug. 5. The ruling Rajapaksa brothers sought to expand their mandate through the virus-delayed polls. (Photo: AFP)

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Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s party is tipped to win the parliamentary election in the island nation — a result that could further marginalize the minority Tamils and Muslims.

Over 16 million Sri Lankans were eligible to vote in the Aug. 5 polls that attracted a good voter turnout of 70 percent despite the Covid-19 pandemic. Counting was taking place today.

Buoyed by his presidential poll victory last November, Rajapaska’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) is looking for a two-thirds majority to form a government under the president’s elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, a two-term president.

Parties representing minorities play a crucial role as their performance in the poll will define the Rajapaksa family’s mandate in the Buddhist-majority nation.

Political observers see a chance of Rajapaksa amending the constitution if he wins a two-thirds majority in parliament, making his government an authoritarian and pro-Sinhala Buddhist administration.

The family has almost consolidated its power in the country with the president’s youngest brother, Basil, leading another political party, the Sri Lanka People's Freedom Alliance (SLPFA).

The SLPP, backed by nine smaller parties, is banking on the minority Tamils and Muslims, who voted against Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the presidential polls in November, due to a fractured opposition camp ahead of the general election.

Gotabaya is credited with ending the three-decade-long civil war against Tamil separatists as the defense minister. He enjoys the backing of the Sinhala-Buddhist ethnic majority who form 70 percent of the population.

Nearly 70 parties, 313 independent groups and 7,452 candidates contested the polls that will elect 225 lawmakers for the next five years.

The main opposition United National Party (UNP) has seen deepening divisions since the presidential election.

UNP supremo Ranil Wickremesinghe has been at loggerheads with the party's 2019 presidential candidate, Sajith Premadasa, who parted ways and floated a new party. Wickremesinghe was forced to resign as prime minister after the humiliating election defeat.

The ethnic minorities are also without leadership. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which is active in the Tamil-speaking north, no longer enjoys much clout due to its indifference to the cause of Tamils.

Muslims, who form some 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s 21 million people, are represented by a few political outfits, but they are not expected to make a dent in Rajapaksa’s fortunes.

Christians, who comprise 7 percent of the population, are still recovering from the trauma of the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings that claimed 279 lives.

The attacks were projected as a revisit of terrorism 10 years after the end of the civil war. Wickremesinghe's government was blamed for failing to stop them.

Sri Lanka’s influential Cardinal Malcom Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo, has distanced the Catholic Church from all political parties. He asked political parties not to use his pictures in the election campaign. 

It is vital for President Rajapaska to win maximum seats — not less than 130 — to restore the powers of the presidency.

About two dozen seats from northern and eastern provinces with minorities can rein in the ruling party’s aspirations.

Expensive election

The Covid-19 pandemic made the election the most expensive in the history of Sri Lanka. More than 8,000 health officials and about 69,000 police personnel were on duty to assist voters, including those in quarantine.

As a country reliant on exports and tourism, the pandemic has made the Sri Lankan economy weaker and vulnerable.

A country of 22 million people, Sri Lanka has reported 2,823 coronavirus cases with 11 deaths, according to official data. The data, however, is doubted by critics of the government.

The election is a yardstick to gauge the influence regional and global powers wield on the island, which has the world's busiest shipping route.

For decades until China tipped the balance, India held sway by financing billion-dollar infrastructure projects and rehabilitation measures after the civil war.

Sri Lanka is an economic stepping stone in the Indian Ocean for China with its Belt and Road infrastructure initiative.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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