Sri Lanka to elect new President on November 16

Main candidates: Sajith Premadasa (left) and Gotabaya Rajapaksa. File

Main candidates: Sajith Premadasa (left) and Gotabaya Rajapaksa. File   | Photo Credit: AP

Gotabaya, Premadasa to square off in an election fought on national security and economic concerns.

Nearly 16 million voters will have a say in Sri Lanka’s biggest election on Saturday, that is being closely fought by presidential hopefuls Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sajith Premadasa, though a total of 35 candidates are in the race.

National security and economic concerns dominate this presidential poll, coming seven months after the deadly Easter Day suicide bombings that killed over 250 people. Apart from gripping the country in fear — after a decade’s relative peace since the civil war ended — the terror attacks delivered a huge blow to Sri Lanka’s tourism sector and economy that heavily relies on it.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, candidate of the opposition Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP or People’s Party), was a powerful war-time defence secretary, who has now made an entry into politics. The younger brother of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Mr. Gotabaya, 70, is pitching himself as a “strong leader”, promising a safe country in the wake of prevalent anxiety over national security since the terror attacks. He has promised technocratic fixes to the economy that, he has said, will be knowledge-based under his possible leadership.

On the other hand, Sajith Premadasa, 52, of the ruling United National Party (UNP) was named candidate after an insurgent campaign within. Drawing huge support from grassroot organisers, he has since been trying to rejuvenate the party’s diminishing rural vote base, much like his late father President Ranasinghe Premadasa, who was known for his rural connect. His campaign has been broadly on a plank of welfare, including shelter for all and universal education and health.

Watch | 2019 Sri Lanka Presidential Election

High stakes

For many Sri Lankans, this presidential poll is one of high stakes and difficult choices.

Many among the island’s Sinhala-Buddhist majority associate the Rajapaksa clan with “ending the war [against LTTE] and restoring peace”. They underscore the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration’s contribution to upgrading basic infrastructure across the country. Mr. Gotabaya draws huge support from this base, while other voters are averse to the “family rule” — four brothers and at least two of their sons are at the forefront — and “large-scale corruption” associated with their past administration.

Sri Lanka to elect new President on November 16

Further, critics and dissidents are wary of a reversal to the Rajapaksa era that brings back memories of an authoritarian tilt and state repression, more severely felt in the war-hit north and east inhabited by Tamils. Mr. Gotabaya also faces accusations of rights abuse — he has denied them — and has been linked to hard-line groups notorious for inciting anti-Muslim violence.

But that does not make Mr. Premadasa an easy choice because his candidacy comes with the baggage of incumbency of a government whose stocks plummeted in the last five years. Those who backed the ruling coalition in 2015 are frustrated, after a major corruption scandal at the Central Bank, the constitutional crisis last October and the lapses in security and intelligence-sharing ahead of the ghastly serial blasts in April.

All the same, Mr. Premadasa himself comes with a relatively untainted political record and appears to speak to the concerns of the poor. Further, he has drawn the main parties representing Tamil (in the north-east, and hill country) and Muslim minorities this election and is seen to be projecting a more inclusive approach to national politics, which has reassured his supporters.

Counting of the votes will begin on Saturday, soon after polling ends. Early trends are expected on Sunday, though the Election Commission will declare the final, official results on Monday. Sri Lanka follows a preferential voting system where voters can mark up to three preferences on the ballot. Preference votes will come into play if neither of the top two candidates secures over 50%.

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Printable version | Feb 21, 2020 12:02:02 AM |

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