Sri Lanka presidential polls today: Despite 35 candidates in fray, voters face difficult task of picking 'lesser of two evils'

  • In Sri Lanka, it's come down to a race between two candidates -- the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna's (SLPP) Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the New Democratic Front'ss (NDF) candidate Sajith Premadasa

  • Gotabaya's background in defence and his uncompromising stance on national security have earned him fresh appeal with some anxious citizens after devastating suicide bomb attacks killed 239 people on Easter Sunday this year

  • Sajith has won popularity through a development-first approach, building houses for the working class, and that makes him a formidable foe to Gotabaya

  • However, isillusioned by both some are considering voting for Anura Kumara Dissanayake of National People's Power alliance attracted by his commitment to decriminalise same-sex relationships, stance on language rights and promise to abolish Executive Presidency

With 35 candidates in the fray for the Sri Lanka presidential election scheduled to take place on 16 November, it would appear that voters are spoilt for choice. However, a closer look reveals the opposite.

In the end, it is coming down to a race between two candidates — the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna’s (SLPP) Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the New Democratic Front’s (NDF) candidate Sajith Premadasa.

Gotabaya is a reminder of a repressive and authoritarian former regime. As former Sri Lanka defence secretary, he faced accusations of state complicity in abductions and killings during and shortly after Sri Lanka’s civil war was concluded, when his brother, Mahinda, was the president. Gotabaya strongly denies the accusations. He is also fighting corruption-related charges — the widespread corruption and nepotism of the Rajapaksa regime was one of the deciding factors leading people to vote for change in 2015. Yet, Gotabaya’s background in defence and his uncompromising stance on national security have earned him fresh appeal with some anxious citizens after devastating suicide bomb attacks killed 239 people on Easter Sunday this year, revealing lapses of communication and intelligence sharing within the coalition government.

 Sri Lanka presidential polls today: Despite 35 candidates in fray, voters face difficult task of picking lesser of two evils

Sri Lankan polling workers outside a material distribution centre in Colombo. AP

But it remains to be seen whether the younger Rajapaksa will be able to muster the votes. Mahinda has remained at the front and the centre during Gotabaya’s campaign — he is at rallies, press briefings and even on campaign literature and posters — a tell-tale sign that Gotabaya does not inspire the same adoration from their largely Sinhala Buddhist vote base.

For some, the name Premadasa conjures up disturbing memories too. Sajith’s father Ranasinghe Premadasa was the president in the late 1980s and had to contend with a civil war and a communist insurgency, which he combatted with brutal efficiency.

As a minister of housing and construction, Sajith is relatively untested on national issues. His stance on ending period poverty by making sanitary products free of charge won him some fans. He has also been careful to distance himself from the ruling United National Party, which is seen as elitist, and has instead been taking up issues pertaining to social welfare in his campaign. Like his father, he has won popularity through a development-first approach, building houses for the working class. That makes him a formidable foe to Gotabaya.

But not everyone is convinced by Sajith. Worryingly, Sajith has spoken in favour of the death penalty and has promised to protect Army Commander Shavendra Silva, who as a wartime commander faced allegations of grave violations of international humanitarian law. These statements do not inspire confidence in voters looking for a progressive and democratic alternative to the Rajapaksas.

Disillusioned, some are considering voting for Anura Kumara Dissanayake, the candidate from National People’s Power, a coalition led by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna. The JVP was responsible for the communist insurgencies that the senior Premadasa cracked down on in the 1980s. The violence these insurgencies inspired linger in public memory to this day — in the past, the party would trail behind during general elections. But Dissanayake’s commitment to decriminalise same-sex relationships, his stance on language rights and his promise to abolish Executive Presidency (a key campaign promise made by the coalition government which was never fulfilled) has endeared him to the queer community and voters who are disenchanted with the UNP and are looking for an alternative. Yet even Dissanayake isn’t without his flaws — the NDF candidate has remained deliberately obtuse on issues of national importance; dodging questions about minority issues while simultaneously taking credit for the war victory.

Then there’s Mahesh Senanayake, the former Army Commander and candidate from the National People’s Movement, whose nomination caused much consternation in the SLPP camp. As a member of the military and a Sinhala Buddhist, Senanayake poses a threat to Gotabaya’s vote-base. Ironically, his military background is also why some voters are wary of Senanayake’s candidacy despite his apparent willingness to pursue a reform agenda.

Neither Dissanayake nor Senanayake is likely to win the election, but their candidacy means that previously uncontested vote bases may be split. This alone, some argue, means that the only option left for the minorities is to vote for Sajith — the ‘lesser of two evils’ and the only real contender able to take on Rajapaksa.

Historically, the Rajapaksas have pandered to their Sinhala Buddhist vote base, often at the expense of minorities. Gotabaya himself, for instance, was invited as chief guest at an event hosted by the Bodu Bala Sena — a Buddhist group known for its rhetoric targeting the Muslim community (although he later distanced himself after a public outcry, claiming ignorance about the group’s activities).

The minority vote, too, is contested. Tamil groups like the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) have called for a boycott of the election. In the east of the country, former Easter Province Governor MLAM Hisbullah is contesting, which may capture some Muslim votes (he recently called on those voting for him to cast their second preference for Gotabaya Rajapaksa).

Former LTTE leader Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan (alias Karuna Amman) is also reportedly backing Rajapaksa, and so has his deputy Sivanesadurai Chandrakanthanthan (alias Pillaiyan), both capitalising on Tamil-Muslim tensions, which have escalated in the East following the Easter Sunday attacks.

With a closely fought race likely in the election on 16 November, tension is rising — over 3,000 election-related complaints have been made so far. Concerns are also being raised about the role of social media with several of the candidates running ads on Facebook. This is particularly worrying given the platform’s recent decision to allow ads that spread misinformation, and the difficulty of ascertaining how much is spent on social media. Facebook has also not released an Ads Library Report in Sri Lanka, which would show the total amount spent on political content. The two main candidates alone have spent an estimated Rs 1 billion on the election campaign, according to the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence.

The upcoming election will prove crucial to Sri Lanka’s trajectory. It seems inevitable that whichever candidate is elected, there will be a fundamental shift in the country’s political climate.

In the end, even with 35 candidates, there has never seemed like less choice for voters at the polling booth.

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Updated Date: Nov 16, 2019 00:13:08 IST


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