Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 10 December 2019

Two political dynasties face off in Sri Lanka's presidential election

Relatives of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Sajith Premadasa have held country's highest post

A man walks past the posters of Sajith Premadasa, Sri Lanka's presidential candidate of the New Democratic Front alliance, in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Reuters
A man walks past the posters of Sajith Premadasa, Sri Lanka's presidential candidate of the New Democratic Front alliance, in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Reuters

Sri Lankan voters will head to the polls on Saturday for a presidential election in which the winner will probably be from one of two political dynasties.

Still recovering from the April 21 Easter Sunday bombings that killed more than 250 people, Sri Lanka’s voters are hoping the election will bring much-needed stability.

Issues such as national security, the economy and corruption are high on the agenda for the electorate, as candidates try to attract votes across the Buddhist majority, and the Christian, Hindu and Muslim minorities.

Campaigning for Saturday's polls ended at midnight on Wednesday, with results expected on Sunday.

About 16 million people over the age of 18 are eligible to vote for the 35 candidates, but only two have any real chance.

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, 70, a retired army lieutenant colonel and brother of former strongman president Mahinda Rajapaksa, was the de facto military chief who crushed Tamil guerrillas and ended a 37-year separatist war.

Mr Rajapaksa's family calls him Sri Lanka's "Terminator" because he promises to fight corruption and extremism, which is a key issue since the bombings.

Supporters of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party presidential candidate Gotabhaya Rajapaksa shout slogans during a campaign rally in Homagama. AFP
Supporters of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party presidential candidate Gotabhaya Rajapaksa shout slogans during a campaign rally in Homagama. AFP

He led the operations against the Tamil Tigers when his elder brother was president.

Mr Rajapaksa has faced lawsuits in Sri Lanka and the US over accuations of staged killings of Tamil separatists, critics and journalists in the war.

Both brothers say the allegations are part of a western conspiracy to interfere in the island nation of 22 million, which is in the middle of crucial shipping lanes.

There is long history of tension between the dominant Sinhalese Buddhists and minority ethnic Tamils.

In recent months, Sinhalese hardliners have also attacked the tiny Muslim community.

Mr Rajapaksa’s family dominates politics in the country.

Mahinda is rumoured to be looking at running for prime minister in next year’s election, while two more are political strategists for their Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party.

Three men of the family's next generation are also in politics.

Mr Rajapaksa's main rival, Sajith Premadasa, 52, is also from a politically connected family.

His father was assassinated during a May Day rally in the capital Colombo in 1993 during his time as president of the country.

Tamil rebels were blamed for killing Mr Premadasa, who was regarded by many as an autocratic leader.

But the younger Mr Premadasa, the only son in a family of two children, has kept a relatively low profile until he was given the party ticket to contest the elections.

His claim to fame has been building government housing for lower-income families, a cause championed by his father.

A supporter of Sajith Premadasa, Sri Lanka's presidential, candidate of the New Democratic Front alliance, sits inside a campaign office in Colombo. Reuters
A supporter of Sajith Premadasa, Sri Lanka's presidential, candidate of the New Democratic Front alliance, sits inside a campaign office in Colombo. Reuters

Mr Premadasa has called for a clean-up of his own party and vowed to purge key ministers of the government.

Among the others in contention is just one woman, Ajantha Perera of the Socialist Party of Sri Lanka, and two Buddhist monks.

Police stepped up security across Sri Lanka on Wednesday over fears of violence on the final day of fierce campaigning, officials said.

Police commandos reinforced police as the two front runners held rival rallies at the end of a gruelling campaign.

"There are reports of possible violence," a senior police official told AFP.

"Additional strength has been deployed in vulnerable areas. Sniffer dogs and explosive detectors will also be used at final rallies."

Updated: November 14, 2019 02:00 AM

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