Colombo, Oct 22 (IANS): Ahead of the Noverber 16 presidential election in Sri Lanka, hopefuls were making a strong national security pitch to woo voters in a polarized campaign focused on the April 21 Easter Sunday suicide bombings that claimed 260 lives, according to political analysts.
A record 35 candidates have filed their nominations for the island nation’s eighth presidential election, with incumbent President Maithripala Sirisena’s term coming to an end in January 2020.
Of the 35 hopefuls, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna’s (SLPP) candidate and former Defence Minister Gotabaya Rajapaksa; and the ruling United National Party’s (UNP) Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa, who is contesting as the National Democratic Front (NDF) contender, have emerged as the two favourites.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who served as the Defence Minister in his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa’s administration, oversaw the end of Sri Lanka’s brutal 25-year civil war in 2009.
Premadasa is the son of late President Ranasinghe Premadasa, who ruled the country with an iron fist before he was assassinated by a Tamil suicide bomber on May 1, 1993.
Analysts think that campaigning for the presidential election is fuelling the Sinhalese nationalistic sentiments and candidates to fan the flames are using the bombings claimed by the Islamic State militant group, Efe news reported.
This election, according to Jayadeva Uyangoda, a professor at the University of Colombo, has polarized voters.
“There are two main candidates and the majority Sinhala population is divided between the two,” he told Efe.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Premadasa were both largely banking on the issues of nationalism and national security to woo the electorate.
The NDF includes the two major Muslim political groups, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and the All Ceylon Muslim Congress, as well as the Tamil Progressive Alliance that represents a section of the Tamil Hindu minority.
But which way the Tamil and Muslim minorities will align “is unclear due to issues such as the rise of nationalism and the Easter bombings”, said Uyangoda, also the founder-director of the Centre for Policy Research and Analysis.
Meanwhile, he Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE), an election monitoring group, said it had received 185 complaints about poll law violations as false information about national security was being spread and dominated the campaign.
“A certain political camp is using the issue of national security to cause fear among voters and has begun spreading false information,” it said, without naming the camp.
The monitoring group has requested the National Elections Commission to investigate if an organized group was spreading rumors related to national security, CaFFE Executive Director Ahmed Manas Makeen said.
“If some parties believe they can get an advantage in the election by spreading rumors, that will be a serious problem,” Makeen added.
On the other hand, President Sirisena, whose Sri Lanka Freedom Party was earlier part of the NDF, has announced that he would remain neutral despite his party throwing its weight behind Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
“I’m quite sympathetic to the President’s predicament. He has opted to remain neutral for his security guarantees. Sri Lankan politics has reached a point of vindictiveness and the outgoing President has to ensure the safety of his family and himself once a new President is elected,” said Uyangoda.
The island nation of over 21 million people follows a preferential voting system for its presidential election.
Voters can mark up to three preferences among contestants. If no candidate gets past the 50 per cent mark, a run-off is triggered.