Lanka's oppn presidential candidate Rajapaksa leading in early results

Colombo, Nov 17 (PTI) Sri Lanka's main opposition candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa was leading in the early presidential election results on Sunday morning, securing a massive support in the majority Sinhalese-dominated constituencies.

In the results declared by 4.30 AM, the former wartime defence secretary won postal votes of nine districts while the ruling party candidate Sajith Premadasa won postal votes of three districts.

Rajapaksa, 70, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) presidential candidate, is leading in the results declared so far, Colombo Gazette reported.

While New Democratic Front Presidential candidate Premadasa, 52, secured the highest votes in the Tamil-dominated North and parts of the East, Rajapaksa led in most areas in the Sinhalese-dominated South, it said.

In the result declared so far from the sole polling division in the south of the country, Rajapaksa has won 65 per cent against Premadasa's 28 per cent.

Premadasa has won three polling divisions, Jaffna, Nallur and Kayts in the Tamil region of Jaffna district by 85, 86 and 69 per cent against Rajapaksa's six, five and 17 per cent.

Postal votes are cast in advance by officials drafted for election duty on polling days.

The remaining candidates who contested the election were far behind in numbers.

Sri Lankans voted on Saturday to choose a successor to President Maithripala Sirisena amid multiple poll-related incidents, including an attack on the minority Muslim voters, in an election that will decide the future of the country that struggles with security challenges after the Easter Sunday bombings and increasing political polarisation.

As many as 12,845 polling stations were set up across the country for 15.9 million voters.

A record 35 candidates were in the fray for the top post with the main contenders being former wartime defence secretary Rajapaksa and the ruling party candidate Premadasa.

Anura Kumara Dissanayake from the National People's Power (NPP) coalition is also a strong candidate.

This poll will make record as the election with the largest number of polling stations and the longest 26-inch ballot paper.

Outgoing President Sirisena said he believed that 'we were able to hold such a peaceful election because I remained independent'.

According to observers, with pro-China Rajapaksa in the fray, India is keeping a close watch on the election results as its outcome will have a bearing on the country's presence in the Indian Ocean region where Beijing is increasingly making its inroads.

China, which has acquired Sri Lanka's Hambantota port in 2017 as a debt swap, has been ramping up its ties with the island nation and expanded its naval presence in the Indian Ocean with an established logistics base in Djibouti China in July gifted a warship to Sri Lanka, in a growing sign of its deepening military cooperation with the strategically located island nation in the Indian Ocean.

The Lanka election took place nearly seven months after homegrown radicals pledging loyalty to the Islamic State terror group detonated suicide bombs at three churches and three posh hotels, killing 269 people, seriously hitting the tourism industry, one of the main forex earning sectors of the country.

The candidate who obtains over 50 per cent of the votes will win the presidency. The ballot also allows voters to choose their three top candidates in order of preference, which will determine the winner if no candidate secures over half the first place votes.

Those preferences will be used to tally votes for the top two candidates to decide the winner. Such a process has not happened in previous elections because one candidate has always crossed the 50 per cent mark.

In the election, Premadasa, the ruling United National party (UNP) candidate, banks on his 'man of the commoner' image - a legacy of his father Ranasinghe Premadasa, the country's president between 1989 and 1993 until the LTTE assassinated him in 1993.

Premadasa senior was considered as the 'man of the poor'.

The Rajapaska senior’s legacy of ending the Tamil separatist war has made him the darling of the Sinhala Buddhist majority.

His younger brother Gotabhaya was his top defence ministry official who supervised the military operations against the LTTE. While doing so he acquired the reputation of a ruthlessly efficient administrator. PTI CORR CPS