Sri Lanka presidential elections: High turnout signals close race

A Sri Lankan Special Task Force man stands guard as election officials carry ballot boxes to be transferred to a main counting centre after the presidential election voting centres closed in Colombo on November 16, 2019. | Photo Credit: AFP
Meera Srinivasan Colombo 16 November 2019 08:57 IST
Updated: 17 November 2019 07:37 IST

Preliminary estimates record close to 80% polling; minority Tamil, Muslim regions see over 70% voting.

The November 16 presidential election in Sri Lanka may be headed for a tight race between hopefuls Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sajith Premadasa, following a high voter turnout, including in the north and east, home to a large population of minority Tamils and Muslims.

According to preliminary estimates provided by the Election Commission, about 80% of the eligible citizens cast their votes, comparable to the 81.52 % recorded in the 2015 election.

Initial trends are likely to emerge by Sunday afternoon, while official results will be declared on Monday.


Election Commission chairman Mahinda Deshapriya said Saturday’s poll was the “most peaceful” presidential election in his experience, barring an incident in which gunmen fired at buses transporting Muslims to their polling stations in what some feared was an intimidation tactic. However, no injuries were reported and the passengers reached their booths on time, he told media persons.

Most districts in the north and east polled over 70%, and the final figure could be marginally higher than the turnout recorded in the regions in 2015, local officials told The Hindu.

Though lower than the national average, the votes polled in the north, east and the central hill country — where most Malayaha Tamils live — could swing the final result in the event of a near-equal divide in the southern votes.

Mr. Rajapaksa, a former Defence Secretary and brother of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, is known to have considerable support in the southern, Sinhala-majority districts. The brothers are widely regarded as “heroes” who “saved” the country by ending the war with the Tamil Tigers a decade ago.

Mr. Premadasa, Housing Minister, too, campaigned hard in the south, hoping to draw support from the rural vote base, despite the anger with his government. The disappointment was further heightened after its apparent failure to prevent the Easter terror attacks in April despite prior intelligence. 

Watch | Sri Lankan Presidential election: Key contenders and issues

Minority vote 

Further, Mr. Premadasa is banking heavily on the minority vote. It is widely expected to go in his favour, since prominent Tamil (north-east and hill country) and Muslim parties have backed him this election. Moreover, many Tamils and Muslims are still fearful of Mr. Rajapaksa, who is accused of war crimes — he has denied them — and is linked to reactionary Sinhala Buddhist groups that have stoked anti-Muslim violence in the past.

As voting ended on Saturday, both camps appeared confident that the high turnout would push their candidate past the 50% mark required for the winner. A second round of counting will be undertaken to tally preference votes if neither contestant secures over half the vote share. 

“Going by the high turnout, it looks like there is a very strong anti-incumbency sentiment,” said Namal Rajapaksa, legislator and nephew of Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa. “The fact that the whole country, including the north, has voted in large numbers shows that they all want to be part of this democratic process. It is a very healthy sign,” he told The Hindu.

Cabinet Minister Mano Ganesan said it was “very encouraging” to see the large number of voters exercising their franchise.

 “Sajith Premadasa is quite popular in the south and he has proactively reached out to the minorities across the island in his campaign. We are quite hopeful that he will win,” he said.

Meanwhile, the high Tamil turnout in the north and east is also seen as a rejection of repeated calls for a poll boycott from some political leaders. 

“It [turnout] means that the Tamil voter is very pragmatic and knows what is really good for the Tamil people in the given context,” said M.A. Sumanthiran, Jaffna district MP and spokesman of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). Post-war, engaging fully in the available democratic space is a “sine qua non”, he said, if the Tamils are to make any progress in achieving their political aspirations. “Our people understand this very well…boycott was never on the cards,” he told The Hindu.