Sri Lankan police and election officials load ballot boxes and papers into busses from a distribution centre to polling stations (Photo: Reuters)
As Sri Lanka
prepares to vote on Wednesday, the bets are not on who will win the Parliamentary election. Rather, they are on the margin of victory for Mahinda Rajapaksa
— former Sri Lanka
President, interim Prime Minister, and leader of the Sri Lanka
Podujana Peramuna (SLPP).
It remains a question of what the final tally will be — a simple or brute majority in the 225-member legislature.
“The Rajapaksa regime is going all out to get a two-third majority in Parliament after the forthcoming elections on August 5. The avowed objective of such a steam-roller majority is to promulgate a new Constitution or enact Constitutional amendments unilaterally,” said veteran political observer and exiled Sri Lankan D B S Jeyaraj.
Without a two-third majority, the government cannot amend the Constitution, which Rajapaksa has, time and again, reminded his largely Sinhala Buddhist constituency during public meetings.
He lost the election for a third term as President, despite winning the Sinhala majority vote, because the Tamil/Muslim dominated northern and eastern provinces of the island voted against him. The SLPP would like to institutionalise a system by which the minority cannot overrule the majority. Sinhala Buddhists constitute 70 per cent of the population.
Rajapaksa will lock horns with the United National
Party (UNP), which had a majority in the last Parliament, and the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB).
The SJB, which led by Sajith Premadasa — former UNP deputy leader and senior cabinet minister in the last coalition government — is a breakaway faction of the UNP. The election pitch of the SJB is similar (if not same) to UNP — less government in governance, a free-er economy and traditional equi-distance from India and China.
This is expected to divide the UNP voters, and unite Rajapaksa supporters.
Rajapaksa’s ascendancy, however, should worry India. As interim PM, he had endorsed the announcement made by Sri Lanka President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (his brother), that the government would review a port deal worth millions of dollars signed between the previous government and New Delhi.
India and Japan were to jointly develop the new East Container Terminal as part of the agreement. The Rajapaksa brothers have also distanced themselves from the funding offered by the ‘Quad’ of the US, India, Japan and Australia — which is trying to counter China’s growing geopolitical influence.
Sri Lanka recently shelved the Japan-funded Colombo Light Railway project and a $480-million ‘Millennium Challenge Corporation’ grant from the US —indications of a markedly pro-China tilt.
Yet, the country is going deeper into debt. The IMF estimates net government borrowing — which combines the fiscal deficits of Central and regional governments — to rise to 9.4 per cent of the GDP in 2020 — up sharply from last year’s 6.8 per cent, due to the Covid impact. Indrajit Coomaraswamy, former governor of SL’s central bank, had said in an interview last year that China’s share in the country’s total external debt was 9 per cent. Most analysts say it could be double. Despite that, SL is turning to China for financial aid again. When the pandemic hit, Beijing granted an “urgent” loan of $500 million to help the island nation. This was followed by a credit line of $80 million from the China Development Bank, for the improvement of a 105-km road project.
After Gotabaya became President, one of the first leaders from the sub-continent to rush to Colombo and congratulate him was Foreign Minister S Jaishankar. This was deemed an action to make up for past omissions: Mahinda Rajapaksa
had, after losing the last election, alleged that India had conspired to defeat him. This time, the Indian foreign office may view SL with caution, depending on SLPP’s victory margin.