Sri Lanka votes tomorrow for new President, all eyes on Gotabaya Rajapaksa

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Maithripala Sirisena, who rode a surge of public anger against the Rajapaksa family to win by a massive margin four years ago, is not in the fray.

SEVEN MONTHS after the Easter Sunday blasts, Sri Lanka goes to polls Saturday to elect a new President — with one big difference from 2015.

Maithripala Sirisena, who rode a surge of public anger against the Rajapaksa family to win by a massive margin four years ago, is not in the fray. And, one of the main contenders this time is Gotabaya Rajapaksa, ex-defence secretary and younger brother of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Gotabaya, the Opposition candidate, appears to have significant backing among the majority Sinhalese, but the other key contender — Sajith Premadasa of the ruling UNP — enjoys considerable goodwill across the board as a “good politician”.

Gotabaya is credited with ending the war against the LTTE as defence secretary in the Mahinda regime. He is also seen as a “man of discipline” and a technocrat who wants to bring radical policy reforms.

Sajith is the son of former president Ranasinghe Premadasa, who was assassinated by an LTTE suicide bomber in 1993.

With results expected before Monday, the battlelines are sharp on the ground in Colombo.

“This is the fear among many that Gotabaya’s victory may bring irreversible changes in society against their existence,” said Sharmila Seyyid, a leading Tamil writer, adding that her mother was rushing to Batticaloa to cast her vote.

Janaka Madhawa, a taxi driver, says only a Gotabaya government can bring order and discipline. “The blasts wouldn’t have happened if the Rajapaksa family was ruling the country,” he said.

Kanchana Pathmasiri, who works as a food delivery employee, says Sajith is a better candidate. “But he is in the wrong camp. Even if he is good, other leaders in UNP may spoil his government, as we have seen in the last five years,” he said.

Kusal Perera, writer and political analyst, says this election will decide the future of democracy and social space in the country. “Gotabaya’s campaign was based on promises around national security. For Sri Lanka, national security means strengthening of surveillance, intelligence and armed forces. It will be crucial to see how democracy and social spaces are retained after this poll,” he said.

A prominent human rights activist, who requested anonymity, says there are many factors that favour Gotabaya. “The Tamils voted against the Rajapaksa family in 2015. But the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which represented Tamils in the Sirisena government, has lost credibility as the government did not do anything for them. Many ordinary Tamils have lost their trust in Tamil parties and leaders, and may not vote against Gotabaya like in 2015,” the activist said.

“If Gotabaya is accused of massive killings and war crimes, Sajith too carries a similar legacy. His father’s government wiped out hundreds of armed rebels of the Janata Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) in the 1980s. Both represent majoritarian views. Sajith may be a good politician, Gotabaya may be a good doer,” the activist said.

Dilith Jayaweera of TRIAD, the ad agency that designed the poll campaign of Gotabaya, says he will “easily get over 59 per cent votes”. TRIAD had played a crucial role during the war in building public opinion in favour of the government.

Jayaweera says the major challenge for his 210-member team was addressing almost a million-and-a-half new voters and “fence sitters”. “We have done campaigns among other communities, too, in their language,” he said. In one 45-second Tamil ad, Gotabaya is shown smiling and receiving flowers from children. “People know that Gotabaya is a doer, and Sama Bima (a country equal for everyone) is his promise,” Jayaweera said.

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