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Sri Lanka elections: Rajapaksa's bid to solidify power

In Sri Lanka elections on Thursday, President Mahinda Rajapaksa hopes to win the two-thirds parliamentary majority needed to alter the constitution.

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Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa leaves after casting his vote for parliamentary elections in his home town village Madamulana, 140 miles from south of Colombo, Sri Lanka, Thursday.

Manish Swarup/AP

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Sri Lankans voted in parliamentary elections Thursday, in which President Mahinda Rajapaksa is expected to triumph – and then attempt to further tighten his grip on power.

Mr. Rajapaksa, who is still riding a wave of popularity that gathered during his government’s historic defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels last year, was reelected in presidential polls in January, and hopes to win a two-thirds majority for his United People’s Freedom Alliance coalition.

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This would allow him to alter Sri Lanka’s constitution. Few details have been made public about what this might involve. He has, however, mentioned replacing the proportional voting system currently in place with a “first past the post” arrangement that would give a single seat to the most popular candidate in each district.

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That would consolidate his power. But many Sri Lankans – particularly the Tamil minority, whose discrimination at the hands of the Sinhalese majority fueled the 26-year war with the Tamil Tigers – instead want more power devolved to the regions. They also want a dilution of presidential powers, which include appointing the prime minister and dissolving parliament.

Both moves are unlikely to be backed by the president.

Rajapaksa has argued that winning a strong majority would ensure the political stability needed to usher in economic growth after decades of war.

Although he is unlikely to win the 150 seats needed for a two-thirds majority, he could make deals with smaller parties later to achieve that number.

Weak opposition

He hasn’t faced much of a fight: The opposition’s defeated presidential candidate, Sarath Fonseka, who led the Army to victory against the LTTE and then left the military to run against Rajapaksa for president, was arrested in February and charged with illegally political activity while still in uniform. He remains in prison now, facing a court martial. He denies all charges, calling them politically motivated. No main opposition figure has arisen to replace Fonseka.

The elections mostly passed off peacefully, though the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence reported 160 incidents of poll-related violence during the first four hours of balloting across the country. Most complaints were against the president's ruling party, it said.