Colombo, Nov 13 (IANS): Sri Lanka goes to the polls on Saturday for a presidential election that will see two powerful contestants — former defence chief Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and cabinet minister Sajith Premadasa — pitted against each other.
Though 35 candidates are in the fray for the presidential election, the race is essentially between the two contestants, who hail from two powerful families in the island nation.
For the first time in Sri Lanka, no sitting president, prime minister or leader of opposition is contesting the November 16 presidential election.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa, of the newly-founded Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), appears to be the frontrunner in the head-to-head contest with Sajith Premadasa, of the United National Party (UNP).
While the SLPP is contesting on the ‘flower bud’ symbol, the UNP’s symbol is the ‘swan’.
The SLPP is backed by Rajapaksa loyalists, including the outgoing President’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).
The election comes as the country is still reeling from the Easter Sunday bombings in April this year, in which more than 250 people were killed, and is contending with an economic slowdown.
Gotabaya is the brother of former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa. As defence secretary, Gotabaya presided over the end of Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war with the Tamil rebels in 2009. He has been accused of human rights violations committed during the civil war.
Gotabaya enjoys strong support among the island nation’s majority Sinhala Buddhist population, which comprises 75% population of the country.
Gotabaya is one of seven brothers who have dominated Sri Lankan politics for over a decade.
Mahinda Rajapaksa was President for 10 years until the 2015 election. After winning the 2009 war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Mahinda won the 2010 election with a handsome majority. He made Gotabaya the all-powerful defence secretary, while he made another brother, Basil, in charge of the economic and developmental activities.
He placed a third brother, Chamal, as Speaker of Parliament. Mahinda made his son Namal a Member of Parliament to ensure that someone from the family succeeds him.
Gotabaya has announced that he has legally renounced his US citizenship in order to contest the elections.
Sajith, 52, a UK and US-educated politician, is a cabinet minister in current Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government. He is backed by Sri Lanka’s ruling United National Party.
Sajith is banking on his clean image and the UNP’s organisational clout to defeat Gotabaya.
He has also been invoking the name of his father, the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa, who was assassinated by a suspected LTTE suicide bomber in 1993.
Sajith has promised economic reform and is relying on support from Sri Lanka’s minority Tamil and Muslim populations to tide over the strong candidacy of Gotabaya. The two minority communities together form about 20 percent of Sri Lanka’s 21 million population.
The Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) or People’s Liberation Front has fielded Anura Kumara Dissanayaka.
He is a member of the Parliament of Sri Lanka for Colombo and was chief opposition whip until December 2018.
The JVP has become the third biggest force in the island.
The fourth important candidate is Mahesh Senanayake, a former army commander who retired in August 2019 after serving in the military for 36 years, including during the civil war.
In 2010, he had fled the country following the presidential election won by Mahinda Rajapaksa, fearing reprisals for having supported Rajapaksa’s opponent.
He returned in 2015 when Sirisena won the election.
The Tamils are unlikely to vote for Gotabaya Rajapaksa, over the alleged war crimes during the civil war, and the deaths and disappearances. The minorities appear to be favouring Sajith Premadasa.