Bengaluru: Sri Lanka is voting on Saturday to elect the new President. The months-long campaigning has ended and the top contenders are now using their ground level workers to convince the undecided voters.
Though there are 35 candidates in the fray and the ballot paper is almost three-feet-long, the main fight is between United National Party (UNP) deputy leader Sajith Premadasa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), a breakaway faction of the Bandaranaike family’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).
The 52-year-old UK and US-educated Sajith, son of assassinated President Ranasinghe Premadasa, has addressed over 160 public meetings across the Indian Ocean island nation taking his main opponent Gotabaya head on.
Before he was nominated as the UNP candidate, Sajith was not known for his powerful oratory. He has surprised both his own party and the opposition by making electrifying speeches at election rallies. In Sri Lanka, plagued by corruption, Sajith has maintained a clean image.
Despite being a part of Colombo’s elite circles, Sajith has always maintained a distance from them and rubbed shoulders with common people like his famous father.
He has promised the people of Sri Lanka that his administration will focus on all-round development of the country with a special focus on the poor and rural people. Describing his main rivals Rajapaksas as the most corrupt and criminal, he has assured people that his government will always uphold the Constitution, civil liberties and media freedom.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a former defence secretary and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s younger brother, is seeking votes in the name of national security and unity of the island nation, which has fought two bloody, protracted civil wars since its independence from the United Kingdom in 1948. The deadly Easter Day bombings across the nation last April are also being used by his party cadres to tell the voters that the UNP can’t guarantee their personal safety.
The most powerful Buddhist clergy, which always has a major say in the affairs of the state, seems to have been divided over the issue of the next President. Some are backing Gotabaya and some are throwing their weight behind Sajith. The controversy over renunciation of Gotabaya’s USA citizenship appears to be denting his prospects. Though he claims that he has renounced the US citizenship, many are doubting that.
According to ground reports, Gotabaya is leading in Southern and Sabaragamuva provinces. He is locked in a tight fight with Sajith in Uva, Central and North-Central provinces. Sajith is leading in Northern, Eastern and North-Western Provinces.
In the most populous Western Province where the national capital Colombo is situated, both have campaigned vigorously to win majority votes. The Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) has fielded its leader Anura Kumara Dissanayaka as its candidate. A charismatic Dissanayaka is expected to bag about 1 million votes.
Former Army chief Mahesh Senanayake is also in the fray as a candidate of the civil society.
According to some Colombo-based political analysts, the tide seems have turned in favour of Sajith in the last two weeks. With a big chunk of Tamils and Muslims voting for him, he may sail through, they predict.
Some argue that Gotabaya may beat Sajith if the majority Sinhalese votes consolidate behind him. Some even fear that for the first time, Sri Lanka may go for counting of the second preference votes if no candidate secures 50% plus one vote to be the President.
The emerald isle with 22 million population has over 16 million eligible voters. The National Election Commission (NEC) is expecting about 12 to 13 million people to cast their votes.
For the first time in Sri Lanka’s history of Executive Presidency, no sitting President, Prime Minister or Leader of the Opposition is contesting in the Presidential election. The votes will be counted immediately after the voting ends on Saturday evening. The final results are expected by Sunday morning.