Sri Lanka votes for new President

People stand in a line to cast their vote during the presidential election in Colombo, Sri Lanka November 16, 2019. (REUTERS)

Sri Lankans voted Saturday to choose a new president amid multiple poll-related incidents, including an attack on the minority Muslim voters, in an election that will decide the future of the country that struggles with security challenges after the Easter Sunday bombings and increasing political polarisation.

A record 35 candidates are vying for the top post at the election with the main contenders being former wartime defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, 70, and the ruling party candidate Sajith Premadasa, 52. Anura Kumara Dissanayake from the National People’s Power (NPP) coalition is also a strong candidate.

Polls opened at 7 am local time and would close at 5 pm with some 12,845 polling stations being set up throughout the country for 15.9 million voters, who will choose a successor to President Maithripala Sirisena.

This election will make record as the election with the largest number of polling stations and the longest 26-inch ballot paper.

The counting will start soon after the end of voting. The first results are expected after midnight, officials said. The final results will come on Monday.

The election is taking place nearly seven months after homegrown radicals pledging loyalty to the Islamic State terror group detonated suicide bombs at three churches and three posh hotels, killing 269 people, seriously hitting the tourism industry, one of the main forex earning sectors of the country.

Around 400,000 election officials have been placed on duty and over 60,000 police personnel and over 8,000 Civil Defence Force (CDF) personnel deployed to maintain law and order.

Despite tight security, multiple election-related incidents were reported around the country just before voting began and during voting, election monitors and the Police said.

The Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) said that unidentified gunmen attacked a convoy of buses carrying Muslim voters from north-western Puttalam district to the northeastern region of Mannar where they were registered to vote. No casualties were reported.

The CMEV also reported multiple incidents of attempts to influence voters at several locations. There were also reports of voters at polling centres in Buddhist temple being influenced to vote in particular ways by monks tying (sacred) pirith strings.

Some concerns were raised over alleged set up of military road blockades in the north. Tamils saw it as an intimidatory tactic to prevent them from voting. However, the police said the Army was asked to withdraw with adequate deployment of police personnel.

The Army, however, insisted that there was no move to block voters in the North by placing new roadblocks. The Army said that no new roadblocks were placed in Jaffna and that the roadblocks over which some concerns were raised were placed after the Easter Sunday attacks.

Local and foreign election observers are on duty with European Union and Commonwealth observers manning selected areas.

European Union election observers are gathering information on incidents related to the Presidential election.

The Chief Observer of the European Union Election Observer Mission (EU EOM) Marisa Matias told reporters that the EU EOM will gather information from their observers around the country and present its findings on Monday.

The EU has a long history of accompanying the electoral process in Sri Lanka and has deployed EOMs on five previous occasions, the last in 2015, which the EU says reflects the EU’s long-term commitment and partnership with Sri Lanka.

The two front runners Premadasa and Rajapaksa voted in their respective home districts, Hambantota in the Deep South and near capital Colombo. Sirisena, who is supporting neither candidates, voted in his home district of Polonnaruwa in the north central province.

The candidate who obtains over 50 per cent of the votes will win the presidency. The ballot also allows voters to choose their three top candidates in order of preference, which will determine the winner if no candidate secures over half the first place votes.

Those preferences will be used to tally votes for the top two candidates to decide the winner. Such a process has not happened in previous elections because one candidate has always crossed the 50 per cent mark.

In the election, Premadasa, the ruling United National party (UNP) candidate, banks on his 'man of the commoner' image - a legacy of his father Ranasinghe Premadasa, the country's president between 1989 and 1993 until the LTTE assassinated him in 1993.

Premadasa senior was considered as the "man of the poor". His welfare schemes and his low cost housing programmes had endeared him to the masses.

If Premadasa senior is still remembered and loved for his commoner’s touch, the dark side of his authoritarian rule still lingers. "We still remember his (Premadasa senior) gory era when we saw piles of bodies of youth burning on the roadsides on tyre pyres," Mahinda Rajapaksa, the former President, said at campaign rallies in support of his brother Gotabhaya.

The Rajapaksa senior’s legacy of ending the Tamil separatist war has made him the darling of the Sinhala Buddhist majority.

His younger brother Gotabhaya was his top defence ministry official who supervised the daily military operations against the LTTE. While doing so he acquired a reputation as a ruthlessly efficient administrator.

Gotabhaya, from Sri Lanka People's Front, to his advantage has the image a man who is most trusted to safeguard national security after the Easter Sunday bombings.

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