Sri Lankans started voting on Wednesday to elect a new parliament as President Gotabaya Rajapaksa seeks a fresh mandate to boost his power.
The election had been postponed twice due to the coronavirus epidemic, but voting finally got under way at 7am local time (01:30 GMT) with strict hygiene measures in place to prevent the spread of the disease, COVID-19.
People began lining up outside polling stations even before they opened across the island where 16.23 million out of the 21 million population are eligible to vote. First results are expected by Thursday evening, with the final tally due late Friday.
President Gotabaya’s older brother and former two-time president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, is the prime ministerial candidate for the governing Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party. Analysts expect him to easily secure a majority in the 225-seat parliament.
The president is seeking a two-thirds majority for his party in the parliament to enable constitutional reforms to make the presidency more powerful so he can implement his economic and national security agenda.
Voters must wear face masks, keep a social distance and bring their own pen or pencil to mark their ballot paper under rules to prevent the transmission of the virus.
The measures have made it the most expensive vote on record at 10 billion rupees ($54m), the Election Commission said.
The tourism-dependent island nation has been struggling since deadly attacks on hotels and churches last year followed painful lockdowns to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Gotabaya, 71, appointed Mahinda, 74, as caretaker prime minister in a minority government after he won the presidency in November.
Election officials wore transparent face shields while medical personnel were deployed to ensure voters kept strict rules to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
“There will be no chance of you getting infected by the coronavirus at polling stations,” said the chairman of the Election Commission, Mahinda Deshapriya.
“The polling station is safer than the beach, the restaurant and the marketplace, it’s totally corona free.”
Sri Lanka had reported 2,828 cases of the coronavirus and 11 deaths as of Tuesday, which is small compared with other South Asian countries.
Gotabya has claimed credit for controlling the outbreak with strict lockdowns.
The brothers built their political careers as nationalist champions of the majority Sinhalese, Buddhist, community.
They are credited with crushing ethnic minority Tamil separatists who battled for decades for a homeland in the island’s north and east.
The 26-year civil war ended in 2009 when the elder Rajapaksa was president amid allegations of torture and killings of civilians in the final stages of the conflict.
Since then, governments led by the brothers’ opponents have sought to reduce the power of the president to prevent abuses and instead strengthen independent commissions appointed by Parliament.
But Gotabaya said he has felt hobbled since he took over as president.
“I need power to implement my economic programme which you voted for,” he told supporters last week.
The leader of the main opposition party is Sajit Premadasa, the son of Ranasinghe Premadasa, who was assassinated while president by a Tamil suicide bomber in 1993.
Premadasa’s Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) party has warned of the risk of autocracy if the presidency is invested with more powers.