Sri Lanka’s parliamentary elections have handed President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his older brother an overwhelming majority, giving the family power to enact sweeping changes to the constitution of the island nation.
- The tourism-dependent nation is struggling to recover from coronavirus lockdowns
- Significant power was bestowed on parliament and the prime minister by a previous government
- Gotabaya Rajapaksa said the restoration of full executive powers was necessary
Gotabaya Rajapaksa had sought, and achieved, a two-thirds majority for his Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party and its allies to be able to restore full executive powers to the presidency, a move analysts say could push the country toward authoritarianism.
The ruling group won 150 seats in the 225-member parliament, according to a tally published by the election commission from Wednesday’s vote.
The two-thirds majority will see Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s brother and ex-president Mahinda Rajapaksa, 74, taking over as prime minister on Sunday.
But historian and political scientist Jayadeva Uyangoda said in the past “governments which had this level of power” in both India and Sri Lanka “generated a lot of social discontent”.
“We have seen in the past when governments have had a two-thirds majority [they do] not have to worry about checks and balances,” Mr Uyangoda said.
The Rajapaksa brothers increased their popularity among the majority Sinhalese after crushing the Tamil Tiger rebels fighting for a separate homeland for minority Tamils during the elder Rajapaksa’s presidency in 2009.
Currently, significant power is bestowed on parliament and the prime minister after a previous government led by the now-opposition amended the constitution and set up independent commissions to oversee the police and the judiciary, among other arms of the government.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa, 71, said the restoration of full executive powers was necessary to implement his agenda to make the country of 21 million economically and militarily secure. No timeline has been set for such a move.
Veteran journalist and political commentator Victor Ivan said he anticipated a power struggle between the brothers.
“The President wants to change the constitution to take back the power to the presidency,” Ivan said.
The tourism-dependent nation is struggling to recover from a series of deadly Islamist militant attacks last year and recent lockdowns to control the coronavirus pandemic.
Sri Lanka’s economy contracted by 1.6 per cent in the first quarter of 2020 amid COVID-19 restrictions and is predicted to shrink by an overall 4 per cent this year, in what would be its worst performance in more than 50 years.