Sri Lanka's strongmen brothers seek comeback as presidential vote underway

Srilanka election Gotabaya Rajapaksa (Photo- Bloomberg)
Sri Lanka’s 16 million voters will decide Saturday whether to return to power a family of strongmen that took the nation toward a deep reliance on China or extend the rule of the current government that promises more freedom but failed to avert terror attacks that killed over 250 people in April.

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, 70, whose brother Mahinda had close ties with Beijing during his 10-year rule, is running as the candidate for the nationalist Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party. The former defence secretary has made national security his key campaign platform, riding the tide of growing disillusionment among the population after the deadly Easter attacks highlighted the security failures of the present government.

His main opponent is Sajith Premadasa, 52, also from a prominent political dynasty and a member of the ruling alliance that took power four years ago vowing to push for greater democracy, more transparent finances and an independent foreign policy with improved ties with India and the U.S.

Difficult choices

The choices for voters are stark.

A Rajapaksa presidency could take the island nation back toward greater authoritarianism and abuse of power and an era of impunity for human rights abuses and corruption.

His brother Mahinda Rajapaksa’s tenure in office saw a marked deterioration in democracy, in particular press freedom, said Katharine Adeney, director of the University of Nottingham Asia Research Institute who specializes in South Asia politics and ethnic conflict.

“It’s likely that Gotabaya will have learnt the lessons of the 2015 defeat -- that he needs to be careful not to alienate the majority Sinhalese by undermining the democratic process too much -- but there are real concerns about the fate of minorities, both Muslims and Tamils, under his leadership,” Adeney said in an email.

Presidential candidate of Sri Lankas governing party Sajith Premadasa waves to supporters during a rally in Negombo, Sri Lanka, on November 11, 2019. Photo: AP/PTI
Premadasa has pledged to reduce import duties, reform taxes and state-owned enterprises, and open up the economy for foreign investment. He has also promised reconciliation measures to help the country heal from the wounds of the civil war. But his party faces a credibility crisis after the security lapses that lead to the Easter attacks.

“Premadasa is making a virtue out of being less authoritarian than the Rajapaksa family but it’s unclear if he has a clear policy program, and even less if he can deliver,” Adeney said.

The support of the minority Tamil and Muslim populations, who together form about 25 per cent of the country’s population, will be crucial for Premadasa.

The winner will inherit a country with an economy where growth has slowed to a more than five-year low of 1.6 per cent in the quarter ended June and has a debt level hovering at 83 per cent of GDP.

“With little clarity on a winner, investors are taking a wait and see approach,” said Adrian Perera,chief operating officer, Equicapital Investments in Colombo. “If Gotabaya wins, there maybe a speculative rally, on expectations he will set up a new government. But for long-term investments to come in, we need to see parliamentary elections concluded and the fiscal budget presented.”

Sri Lanka’s presidential election:

Polls opened at 7 a.m. local time Saturday and close at 5 p.m., with a winner likely to emerge by late evening Sunday

A record 35 candidates are contesting

Under Sri Lanka’s election rules, each voter casts three ballots in order of preference. A candidate needs more than 50% of first-preference votes to win.

If no candidate gets this, then second and third preferences are included in the count. The person with the most votes is declared the winner, according to the Sri Lanka Department of Elections.

Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel