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A Close Run Race with Major Geopolitical, Regional and National Impact

Published Nov 15, 2019
Updated Feb 06, 2020

What ever be the outcome – Sri Lankan people have ostensibly two choices – one a young and liberal Sajith Premadasa and another an older but  muscular Gotabaya Rajapaksa representing the old order the most dominant family in Sri Lankan politics in contemporary times.

Sri Lanka is holding the he 8th presidential election on 16 November 2019 [tomorrow].

In what is seen to be keenly contested polls in which two candidates espousing different political philosophies though drawn from traditional family political base of the country – the venerable Rajapaksa brothers who were dominant in Sri Lanka politics for over ten years when the eldest sibling Mahenda Rajapaksa was the President and the family’s presidential candidate Gotabaya (Gota) Rajapaksa a Defence Secretary during the long civil war attempting to ride the wave of disappointment over the security establishments somnolence prior to the Easter Sunday terrorist attack on 21 April.

Gotabaya who is seen by many observers as close to Beijing is projecting his image as a strongman who managed defeat of the Liberation of Tamil Tigers Ealam (LTTE) during the civil war is officially a candidate of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP).

SLPP is supported by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) the mother base of the SLPP which broke off as supporters of the Mahinda Rajapaksa rebelled against the incumbent president Maitri Sirisena.

President Sirisena was further isolated after reports of ignoring intelligence warning of the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks by the defence and security establishment under his charge as an Executive President and the defence minister. Sixteen political parties are supporting Gotabaya.

Gotabaya is challenged by Sajith Premadasa who is the housing minister and deputy chairman of the ruling United National Party (UNP), fielded by National Democratic Front (NDF)

Sajith is supported by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and two prominent Muslim parties – Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and All Ceylon Makkal Congress, the Tamil Progressive Alliance formed to represent Tamils (mostly Tamils of Indian origin) living outside northern and eastern provinces and the Jathika Hela Urumaya , popularly known as monks party for its strong affiliation with Buddhist clergy.

Thus significantly minority Sri Lanka Tamils and Muslim parties are supporting Sajith and could be the turning point in the elections as these had been in the 2014 polls that saw the scales being tilted in favour of Sirisena against Mahenda Rajapaksa.

Both candidates have launched vigorous campaigns which has seen hectic outreach to the people and are seen fighting on an agenda for change – for Gotabaya the change is to bring about a strong security environment in a country that has witnessed one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in South Asia in recent years. He has promised restoration of a safe and secure Sri Lanka which will also see rise in tourism – mainstay of the economy.

His opponents are claiming amongst other factors that he has not renounced his US citizenship and his election will result in a foreigner holding the highest office in the country. Gotabaya’s campaign team is contesting the claims.

Sajith on the other hand is contesting on a liberal platform promising full rights to minorities and recession of a militarised state the vision that has been partly projected by Rajapaksa.

Sri Lanka’s strategic location in the Indian Ocean has led the country falling into the big power trap with clashing visions of Belt and Road Initiative by China and the Indo Pacific by the US.

The winner will see a tilt with observers expecting Rajapaksa tilting towards BRI and Sajith towards the Indo Pacific.

In the regional sphere – India has not shown any open preferences but in the 2014 Sri Lanka elections the losing candidate Mahinda Rajapaksa had openly blamed Indian intelligence agency RAW for his downfall. This claim was rejected by the Indian side.

On the other hand Gotabaya is likely to be seen as a China favourite and is referred to in Chinese military circles as “Goty,” his pet name.

The United States was drawn into a controversy over the latest offering of the Millennium Challenge Corporation funds seen by the SLPP and even President Sirisena as affecting the country’s sovereignty given that this includes funds for mapping land data.

The US may be hoping for Sajith’s success ironically against some one who has been a citizen of the country for many years.

What ever be the outcome – Sri Lankan people have ostensibly two choices – one a young and liberal Sajith Premadasa and another an older but  muscular Gotabaya Rajapaksa representing the old order the most dominant family in Sri Lankan politics in contemporary times.

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