New Delhi: Sri Lanka goes to polls on 16 November to choose its President. The results are expected by 17 or 18 November. Of the nearly 22 million people in Sri Lanka, around 16 million are eligible to vote in the election.
As many as 35 candidates are vying to be the next president — a record number, making it Sri Lanka’s most expensive election.
The candidate list is an interesting motley crew — this is the first time an Indian Tamil is contesting the elections and the first time in 20 years, a woman is in the fray. Also in the race are three Muslim candidates, a former actor, two Buddhist monks and a former army commander.
The two front-runners
Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena is not seeking re-election as he did not gain support from his party, Sri Lanka Freedom Party. Instead, they are supporting candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), a party with Right-wing views.
Gotabaya, 70, is the brother of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. He is a former defence secretary, who supervised the last phase of the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). He has emerged as one of the two front-runners in the race. If Gotabaya wins, it is likely that Mahinda will take over as prime minister.
Gotabaya’s candidacy has been marred by allegations that he is a US citizen. Sri Lanka does not allow foreign citizenship holders and non-Sri Lankans to contest elections.
Last month, Gotabaya said if he wins he will release imprisoned military personnel accused of abuses in the country’s civil war.
Many protested against what he said, but Gotabaya dismissed allegations of forced disappearances and unjustified deaths during the civil war by saying he is “trying to become the president of the future Sri Lanka” and not the Sri Lanka of the past.
The other front-runner is Sajith Premadasa, 52, who is the Minister for Housing, Construction and Culture. He is the son of former President Ranasinghe Premadasa, who was assassinated in 1993 by a suicide bomber suspected to have LTTE links.
Sajith is the deputy leader of the ruling United National Party (UNP). It’s a pro-capitalist and Centre-Right party. Sajith will contest the elections as a candidate of New Democratic Front — an alliance of several parties led by the UNP.
A technology enthusiast, Sajith promised to use artificial intelligence-powered dashboard to manage work through e-governance.
But IT professionals had lashed out at Sajith, saying he was misleading the people by “merely displaying a video without incorporating any such advanced technologies”.
Subramaniam Gunaratnam, the Indian Tamil in fray
Another candidate, Anura Kumara Dissanayake, 50, is the leader of Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), a party with Communist ideology.
The issues that Dissanayake focussed on during his campaigning ranged from abolishing the powerful Executive Presidency to ending discrimination against the LGBTQ community — a rare issue for any politician to champion.
The Indian Tamil candidate in the Presidential race is 46-year-old Subramaniam Gunaratnam. He is reportedly the first Indian Tamil to contest the Sri Lankan Presidential elections.
Gunaratnam is from a little known party, Our National Front, and has no political experience. He is a journalist by profession and is contesting the elections with the pledge to resolve issues Tamils continue to endure in Sri Lanka.
An Indian Tamil in Sri Lanka is an individual of Indian origin who may have come to Sri Lanka during the British rule to work in the island’s tea estates in the central hilly region. Tea estate workers are often a disenfranchised community working under inhuman conditions.
‘Garbage queen’ in poll fray
Dr Ajantha Perera, 59, is the first woman in 20 years to run for the Presidential election in Sri Lanka. She is from the Sri Lanka Socialist Party. As an environmentalist, recycling is a key issue around which Perera built her election campaign. She said she has even been called the “garbage gueen” because she worked with communities living near dumpsites.
Another candidate Mahalingam Shivajilingam, 62, is a cousin of slain LTTE chief Prabhakaran. He is running as an Independent candidate. Shivajilingam, arrested in 2018 for celebrating Prabhakaran’s birthday, has said that President Sirisena should be tried for war crimes and genocide against the Tamils.
Mahesh Senanayake, 57, the former army commander whose tenure ended in August 2019, is in the fray to make national security a priority, especially when Sri Lanka is still reeling from the devastating Easter Sunday bombings that killed over 200 people. He is from the National People’s Party.
At 38, Duminda Nagamuwa from the Frontline Socialist Party is the youngest candidate. The minimum age to be a Presidential candidate is 35.
Two Buddhist monks are contesting too — Battaramulle Seelarathana Thero, 51, and Aparakke Punyananda Thero. Seelarathana Thero believes that Buddhist monks are qualified to govern the country because for generations they have advised leaders on governance. He even said he expects to get 60 per cent of the total votes in the election.
Three Muslim candidates — Idroos Mohamadhu Illiyas, 74, A.H.M. Alavi, 57, and M.L.A.M Hizbullah, 56 — are also contesting. This is not the first time that Muslim candidates are running for Sri Lanka’s presidency, but it is significant because this comes after the Easter bombings, which triggered attacks on Muslims in the country.
Alavi’s focus is on ending racism. Hizbullah, the former eastern province governor and proponent of economic prosperity, enjoys local support despite accusations of ‘Arabisation’ of Sri Lanka and having ties with Muslim extremists behind the Easter attacks.
Namal Rajapaksa, 51, of the Nationalities Unity Organisation, is also in the fray. He shares his name with the son of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Namal has built his campaign around the issue of racial harmony.
Other candidates are actor-turned-politician Ketagoda Jayantha Perera, 59, contesting as an Independent, and Sarath Manamendra, 54, from Nawa Sihala Urumaya party, who is pushing to legalise marijuana.
With so much diversity in the candidates’ list, Sri Lankans can’t complain about lack of options.