|KEY FACTS Freedom House Rating Partly Free Government Type Presidential Republic Population 22.6 million||NEXT SRI LANKA ELECTIONS Parliamentary Elections August 5, 2020 Local Elections 2022 (due) Presidential Election Late 2023/Early 2024 (due)||PAST SRI LANKA ELECTIONS Presidential Election November 16, 2019 Local Elections February 10, 2018 Parliamentary Elections August 17, 2015|
Sri Lanka currently plans to hold parliamentary elections on August 5, 2020. The elections were postponed twice from April due to COVID-19.
Sri Lanka is still feeling the aftershocks of a series of terrorist attacks over Easter 2019 and a 2018 political crisis.
In a tense climate, Sri Lanka held presidential elections in November 2019. Out of a record 35 presidential candidates, the two frontrunners were former defense chief Gotabaya Rajapaksa (brother of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa), who has been accused of war crimes, as well as Sajith Premadasa from UNP, who bested Wickremesinghe in the party’s bitterly-fought nomination contest. Rajapaksa presented himself as a strongman, promising to eliminate Islamist terrorists.
The last president, Maithripala Sirisena, did not seek not seek re-election. Sirisena had surprisingly defeated Mahinda Rajapaksa in the 2015 presidential elections. Subsequently, he embarked on a reform program to reverse many of the autocratic powers Rajapaksa had built up. However, since taking office, Rajapaksa has reversed the reforms and re-centralized power.
While the 2019 election was competitive, international observers noted concerns about media bias, transparency in campaign finance, voter education, and party conduct. Sri Lanka’s democracy sits on the precipice, and the upcoming elections could well determine whether it strengthens or deteriorates.
On March 1, 2020, Gotabaya dissolved parliament six months early and called for elections, in a move seen as an attempt to consolidate his power. He subsequently installed none other than Mahinda as prime minister. Operating without a parliament, some are concerned that there are no real checks on the Rajapaksa brothers’ power (furthermore, two other Rajapaksa brothers hold important government and political positions).
Sri Lanka is located strategically in the Indian Ocean. Chinese involvement has raised concerns – Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port has become a textbook example of Chinese debt-trap diplomacy. Historically, there was a perception that China backed the Rajapaksas and India backed parties opposed to them. However, ahead of these elections, China has cultivated a wide range of political stakeholders, including Buddhist clergy, with the goal of deepening its influence in the country.
Philip Baumgart, Atlantic Council (July 30, 2020): Sri Lanka’s parliamentary elections will shape its political future—likely for the worse
Ravi Ratnasabapathy, Nikkei Asian Review (July 27, 2020): Sri Lankan president looks to consolidate power in delayed election – Coronavirus may push down turnout and give Rajapaksa majority to change constitution
Taylor Dibbets, World Politics Review (July 21, 2020): In Sri Lanka’s Elections, a Rajapaksa Win Would Seal Democracy’s Fate
Waruna and Karunatilake, Reuters (June 10, 2020): Sri Lanka delays general election for second time, sets August 5 as new date
Seerat Chabba, DW (May 29, 2020): Coronavirus keeps Sri Lanka without a functioning parliament – With Sri Lanka’s parliament dissolved, and elections delayed by the pandemic, the Rajapaksa brothers are running the country without any checks on their power.
Reuters (March 2, 2020): Sri Lanka to Hold Parliamentary Poll in April: Election Commission
Anbarasan Ethirajan, BBC (February 26, 2020)): How fear set in overnight in Sri Lanka
Alyssa Ayres and Teresita Schaffer, Council on Foreign Relations (November 20, 2019): The Geopolitical Consequences of the Sri Lankan Election
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Updated July 30, 2020