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Sri Lankan president looks to consolidate power in delayed election

Coronavirus may push down turnout and give Rajapaksa majority to change constitution

| Sri Lanka
Gotabaya Rajapaksa greets supporters at Anuradhapura on July 3: Sri Lankans should be suspicious of the president's desire for more power.   © NurPhoto/Getty Images

Ravi Ratnasabapathy is an independent consultant based in Colombo.

The campaign for Sri Lanka's rescheduled parliamentary election lacks zest. Originally slated for April 25, it was postponed by the pandemic and will now take place on August 5, but to citizens distracted by economic worries and the pandemic, it barely registers.

This is a pity, because it will be decisive in determining the structure of political power in the country. At stake is the 19th amendment, a constitutional change brought in by the previous regime that substantially reduced the power of the presidency, restoring term limits and strengthening the judiciary and parliament.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, whose party is a minority in parliament, wants to win an overwhelming majority to reverse the 19th amendment and expand his powers. But much depends on the fallout from the pandemic and how that affects voter turnout.

The reversal of the 19th amendment requires a two-thirds majority in parliament, something that has never been achieved under the system of proportional representation in place since 1978.

Previous governments managed constitutional change by assembling unwieldy coalitions, essentially buying opposition legislators, which led to charges that governments were held hostage to minority interests, particularly parties representing Muslims and Tamils whose votes were needed to obtain the required majority.

To resort to this tactic again would dilute Rajapaksa's credentials as a champion of the Sinhalese cause, the ethnic group representing three quarters of the population.

To avoid this and win over as many voters as possible, before the pandemic he unveiled a series of radical populist measures: sweeping tax cuts, the recruitment of 100,000 people into the already bloated public sector, a minimum wage for plantation workers and a debt moratorium for small and medium-sized enterprises, among other things.

Unfortunately, the president inherited a fragile economy witnessing an extended period of low growth, 5% or below since 2013, and a continual increase in public debt. While the tax cuts were billed as a stimulus measure, their depth, estimated to cost around a quarter of government revenues, threatens to destabilize public finances, alarming observers.

The country was already under an International Monetary Fund program and missed the targets for 2019 "by a sizable margin... due to weak revenue performance and expenditure overruns," according to the IMF. Fitch Ratings said that Sri Lanka's 2020 budget deficit could rise to 9.3% of gross domestic product, the highest since 2015. S&P Global Ratings has twice downgraded Sri Lanka's debt. A massive tax cut is not going to help.

The government has sought debt relief from India and international lenders. It has also appealed to China, but may ultimately be forced to return to the IMF.

The fallout from the coronavirus has escalated the risks to the economy. The important apparel industry has been badly hit: exports in January-May 2020 were down nearly a third. Tourism, reeling from an 18% decline in arrivals in 2019 after terrorist attacks, is now at a standstill.

A woman irons a dress at Timex garments factory in Wattala, pictured in June 2018: the important apparel industry has been badly hit.   © Reuters

If recent trends are any guide, Sri Lankans should be suspicious of Rajapaksa's desire for more power.

While economic woes mount, the president has been quietly consolidating his hold over the bureaucracy and apparatus of state by appointing loyalists, many of them retired military officers, to key positions. Officials seen to be impartial have been sidelined or transferred out. Although he promised meritocracy and technocracy, allegations of corruption dog some appointees.

Activists have complained of a rapid closing of civic space and freedom of expression since the election of Rajapaksa. Human Rights Watch says security agencies are stepping up surveillance, harassment and threats against human rights activists and journalists.

With the opposition in disarray and beset by infighting, Rajapaksa will surely coast to victory, although the target of two-thirds of the seats will hinge on the turnout. Minorities, generally fearful of the president, make up almost a quarter of the electorate and are unlikely to vote in large numbers for his party. Without minority support, getting to two-thirds requires an 85%-plus share of the majority vote, unlikely under normal circumstances.

The pandemic changes this equation. The turnout is expected to be low so the ability to mobilize supporters is critical. The formidable Rajapaksa electoral machine may deliver the decisive majority.

Rajapaksa's supporters see him as a technocrat in the style of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew and view the checks on power brought about by the 19th amendment as a hindrance to rapid development. Having tightened his grip on the state apparatus, restoring the powers of the presidency would enable Rajapaksa to push radical change.

Indeed, the executive presidency was created in 1978 with sweeping powers for this very purpose. During the zenith of presidential powers, between 1978 and 2001, Sri Lanka did experience growth, but the most notable characteristic of the era was violence: the escalation of ethnic tensions, the outbreak of civil war and a violent leftist uprising in 1987-89.

Reversing the 19th amendment would restore the untrammeled powers of the presidency, with all the consequences that suggests.

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