Sri Lankans head to the polls Wednesday with the ruling Rajapaksa brothers looking for a super-majority in parliament to change the constitution and unravel democratic safeguards.
Political observers say the siblings — renowned for their ruthless crushing of Tamil separatist rebels to end a decades-old conflict in 2009 – want to end presidential term limits, bring the judiciary and police under their direct control, and extend their dynastic power to a new generation.
The Rajapaksa political dynasty, a long-time force in Sri Lanka, dramatically stormed back to power in November when former defence secretary Gotabaya, 71, was elected president.
Gotabaya — a former army officer dubbed ‘The Terminator’ by his own family — won comfortably running on a law-and-order ticket while capitalising on government infighting.
He swiftly appointed as prime minister his older brother, Mahinda, the former strongman president ousted in 2015 after a revolt within his own party and a public backlash against alleged nepotism and corruption.
A big victory in this week’s parliamentary polls would allow them to overturn constitutional changes passed by the previous administration to decentralise power and prevent another strongman from emerging.
‘What we will end up with is an elected authoritarian regime,’ analyst Kusal Perera said.
Both Rajapaksas have argued that a return to the concentration of power in the hands of the president is needed for them to rebuild the island nation.
‘Vote for our party to revive the economy, build a disciplined society and take the country in the right direction,’ the 74-year-old Mahinda told thousands of supporters at his final rallies in the south of the country late Sunday.
Presidential term limits were introduced in 2015 under former president Maithripala Sirisena when parliament approved sweeping constitutional amendments.
Those changes also made the judiciary, police, civil service and election commission independent branches of government.
If the Rajapaksas’ party secures a two-thirds majority in parliament, they will be able to sweep away those reforms.
Rights campaigners warn that intimidation and threats against lawyers, activists and journalists have already escalated under the Rajapaksas.
‘A campaign of fear has intensified since the 2019 presidential election, and has cast a shadow over the 2020 parliamentary election campaign,’ Human Rights Watch said.
Gotabaya in February issued a veiled warning to the judiciary in a speech where he said judges should refrain from ‘unnecessary interference’ in the political process.
The Rajapaksas, who are revered by their majority Sinhalese for defeating the Tamil Tigers and ending the separatist conflict, are widely expected to secure a big win on Wednesday.
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