SRI Lanka presidential polls South Asia

Rajapaksa, Sirisena file nominations as countdown begins for polls

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa waves to supporters as he arrives to hand over nomination papers in Colombo on Monday.   | Photo Credit: Eranga Jayawardena

The countdown for Sri Lanka’s presidential polls officially began on Monday with 19 candidates, including incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa and joint opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena, filing their nominations for the January 8 contest.

Mr. Rajapaksa, who has two more years remaining in his current second term, on November 20 called early elections due to his reportedly waning popularity. 

Apprehensions within the ruling coalition are said to have grown after the Rajapaksa-led United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) won a provincial election in September only by a narrow margin.

No minority support

The President is unlikely to get much support from a majority of the Northern Tamils, with concerns over militarisation, heavy surveillance and their unfulfilled demand for substantive devolution of power looming large.

More recently, sections among Muslims have also been voicing concern over threats to religious freedom, manifesting themselves through attacks on Muslim-owned establishments and places of worship, reportedly by hard-line Sinhala Buddhist groups.

Mr. Rajapaksa is banking on his traditional support base in the island’s South, where many see him as the leader who managed to crush the rebel Tigers and terminate the country’s protracted war. “My people in the villages won’t let me down,” the President reportedly told editors of local media in a recent meeting, referring to his Sinhala-Buddhist constituency.

Critics however note that sections among the Sinhalese too are disillusioned, with mounting charges of nepotism and corruption in the government and an apparently shrinking democratic space. 

Opposition challenge

President Rajapaksa’s principal challenger, Maithripala Sirisena, has begun to highlight some of these issues, in addition to promising to abolish executive presidency.

“This is a battle between wealth and might, and the power of the people. The might of weapons has no power against people’s power,” said common candidate Sirisena at a press conference on Monday. A Minister in Mr. Rajapaksa’s Cabinet until mid-November,

Mr. Sirisena, along with his colleague Rajitha Senaratne, crossed over to the common platform which is now backed by former president Chandrika Kumaratunga, the United National Party (UNP) — the main opposition — and the Sinhala nationalist Jathika Hela Urumaya or the National Heritage Party. Mr. Sirisena’s move is said to have been least expected in circles close the President.  The Tamil National Alliance and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress are yet to announce their stance. 

The ruling party’s election refrain is largely centred on having brought the war to an end and having invested in the country’s infrastructure development, even as the country faces a U.N. probe into allegations of war crimes. 

Posters of a beaming Rajapaksa dotted many Colombo roads. On Monday, exactly a month ahead of the elections, all English and Sinhala newspapers in Sri Lanka featured a front-page promotion that sought to remind readers of Mr. Rajapaksa’s war victory. 

The Tamil papers, in turn, had a full page advertisement feature on the President re-launching the Yal Devi train to Jaffna in October this year, in line with the government’s claims of development in the war-torn North. 

The joint opposition appears to be aiming to consolidate the dissenting voices among the country’s Sinhala majority while simultaneously eyeing the prospect of support from minority parties.  Nearly 15 million people are eligible to vote in the upcoming elections, which is beginning to look like a close contest. 

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Printable version | May 9, 2021 9:53:03 AM |

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