Sri Lankans go to the polls tomorrow in an election set to hand further power to the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist Rajapaksa family, prompting fears they could rewrite the constitution and further target minorities.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s grip on the country will tighten if, as expected, his brother Mahinda is elected as Prime Minister and he obtains a two-thirds majority in tomorrow’s snap parliamentary election.
Authoritarian Gotabaya surged to a win in November’s presidential elections after promising to return law-and-order to Sri Lanka which had been devastated by the Easter Sunday bombings in April.
Both Gotabaya and Mahinda enjoy enormous popularity among Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese, Buddhist majority - the group constitutes 75 percent of the country’s population - after playing pivotal roles in bringing the country’s 26-year civil war, which claimed over 100,000 lives, to an end.
Mahinda was Sri Lanka’s President between 2005 and 2015 and Gotabaya his Defence Secretary, with the pair credited with finally defeating the largely Hindu, Tamil insurgents.
However, in leading government troops to victory, Gotabaya - nicknamed “the Terminator” by his own family - was accused of carrying out war crimes.
While the prospect of the Rajapaksa's dominating Sri Lankan politics may also stimulate its beleaguered economy - during Mahinda’s previous tenure the country accepted billions of pounds of developmental loans from China - it terrifies Sri Lanka’s minorities.
Since his election in November, Gotabaya has spearheaded a “campaign of fear”, according to Human Rights Watch, targeting opposition lawyers, activists, and journalists, including earmarked arrests, intimidation, and threats.
He has withdrawn from a United Nations agreement that would have seen government soldiers tried for human rights abuses carried out against Tamils during the civil war and promised to free Sinhalese, Buddhist soldiers already in jail.
Activists fear a two-thirds majority in tomorrow’s election will intensify this crackdown.
“Sectarian politics have been the hallmark of the Rajapaksa family and people don’t have short memories,” said Charu Hogg, an Associate Fellow in the Asia-Pacific Programme at Chatham House.
“A large number of Tamils lost family members and friends in the war which came to a brutal end in 2009. The gaining in political strength of those who oversaw this violence will leave them scared”.