Sri Lanka to elect new president on 16 Nov: Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sajith Premdasa emerge frontrunners; security, corruption dominate polls

FP Staff

Sri Lanka is set to vote in a presidential election on 16 November at a time when its economy is growing at its slowest in 18 years, and the country is still reeling from terror attacks in April. Amid challenges of security lapses and "increasing political polarisation", the country is seemingly divided between the issues of security and rampant corruption.

While there are 35 candidates fighting the crucial election, the ballot is expected to be dominated by two candidates from two of Sri Lanka's politically influential families. Former defence chief Gotabaya Rajapaksa is representing the Opposition party Sri Lanka People's Front (SLPP) and former president Ranasinghe Premadasa's son, Sajith representing the ruling United National Party (UNP).

Incumbent president Maithripala Sirisena, whose term will expire on 17 November, has chosen not to seek re-election even as his first term in office has come to be defined by the failure to fulfill many of the promises.

The candidates and key issues

Gotabaya Rajapaksa

Gotabaya, who served as the defense chief under his brother and former strongman president Mahinda Rajapaksa, is popular for his part in ending the long civil war against ethnic minority Tamil rebels a decade ago, AP reported. Though accused of condoning rape, torture and the shadowy disappearances of critics, Gotabaya is considered a hero among ethnic majority Sinhalese for his role in defeating the Tamil Tiger rebels.

Under Mahinda's watch as top defense official during the last few years of the long civil war, which ended in 2009, Sri Lankan forces were accused of targeting hospitals and killing civilians and rebels who surrendered to the military at the end of the war, which saw the military defeat Tamil rebels who were fighting for an independent state for minority ethnic Tamils.

Gotabaya is accused by his opponents as being the man behind the mysterious vehicles whisking away rebel suspects, journalists and activists. Many people taken away in the so-called "white van abductions" were never seen again.

Reportedly, though Gotabaya's campaign has sought to position him as an authority who would be able to take major decisions in the interest of the country's security €" especially building on the lingering fear after the April bomb blasts that killed more than 250 people €" the electorate is largely skeptical of his tainted human rights record.

In October, he was quoted as saying that if he wins the election, he won't follow through the agreement Sri Lanka made with the UN Human Rights Council to investigate alleged war crimes during the nation's civil war. If Rajapaksa refuses to validate the agreement, it would be a severe setback to Sri Lanka's post-war reconciliation process.

However, in the statement in October Gotabaya added that Sri Lankans should look toward the future rather than think about the past. "We have to move forward, we have to forget about hanging on to old allegations and all that. We have a lot of things that we can do for the betterment of the people of that area," he was quoted by AP as saying, referring to the island nation's north and east, where Tamils live in the majority.

His failure to publicly distance himself from radical Buddhist monks makes him a figure of suspicion in the minority Muslim community, as well as among some in the small Christian community, Reuters reported.

Sajith Premadasa

Meanwhile, Sajith, son of former president Ranasinghe Premadasa who was assassinated in 1993 by the Tamil Tiger rebels, has built his campaign for the current election on "improving the lives of the ordinary people".

A report by The Guardian noted, "He has played on a general frustration at the corruption that has plagued Sri Lankan politics; unlike the Rajapaksa family he is one of the few politicians untouched by scandal or allegations."

A minister in current Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's cabinet, Sajith, who has also promised economic reform, is relying on the votes of the "minority Tamil and Muslim populations to get him over the line," Al Jazeera reported.

Political analysts have pegged Sajith as one of the candidates to reckon with because even though Gotabaya has the support of the majority Buddhist-Sinhalese population, he isn't likely to have an easy win without the minorities, which together form about 20 percent of Sri Lanka's 21 million population.

In his campaign, Sajith pledged to refocus the country's security policy and introduce tough laws to tackle religious extremism and terrorism. He also identified religious extremism, illegal drugs and corruption as three issues that require urgent attention.

His platform, released in October, said that the new laws will allow better monitoring, investigation and prosecution of religious extremists, and will provide severe penalties for hate speech and misinformation.

With inputs from agencies

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