Sri Lankans voted to elect a president on Saturday; the result of which will be announced on Sunday. The presidential election in the island nation is significant in many ways. The poll was held against the background of bombing on Easter Sunday on April 21. The issue of security and economy dominated the campaign throughout. The votes of ethnic minorities - Tamils and Muslims - living in the North and East will be important in deciding who will lead the country for the next five years.
The contest is primarily between Gotabaya Rajapaksa of newly founded Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and Sajith Premadasa of the ruling United National Party (UNP). Both come from powerful political families. Gotabaya’s elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa was Sri Lankan President from 2005 to 2015. In 2015, he lost to Sri Lankan Freedom Party’s (SLFP) Maithripala Sirisena. Gotabaya was a Defence Secretary in 2009, when dreaded Tamil separatist organisation Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was wiped out, Mahinda was the Sri Lankan president then. The campaign of SLPP was primarily around security. Sajith’s father Ranasinghe Premadasa was the then President of the country when he was assassinated by Tamil separatists during a May day rally in 1993. Ranasinghe contributed significantly in giving a boost to Sri Lankan economy with progressive economic policies.
In the early days of campaign, Gotabaya was considered favourite to win but as the days of poll approached, it became clear that the election will be quite close. A controversy erupted over the alleged US citizenship of Gotabaya has helped Sajith significantly. Sinhalese-Buddhists are in a majority and they consist of around 75 per cent of the population. They are mainly in the Southern and Central part of the country. Earlier, Muslims were part of a larger Tamil identity but not anymore. Muslims have now their own separate identity.
The ethnic minorities are traditionally against the Rajapaksas mainly because of their hawkish position. First Presidential elections after 2009 - when massive human rights were violated - were held in 2010 and the next in 2015. In both these elections, the minorities voted en bloc against Mahinda Rajapaksa. He won the presidential election in 2010 but lost in 2015. The minorities primarily live in the districts of Jaffna, Vanni, Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Ampara and Nuwara Eliya. In the 2015 election campaign, the violation of human rights became a major issue and helped Sirisena in defeating favourite Mahinda. Sirisena’s clean image also helped the cause. This time, Sirisena decided not to contest.
The minorities are not too happy with the performance of Sirisena but they will prefer ‘lesser evil’ Sajith. He is backed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Sajith is expected to get sizeable votes from North and Eastern Sri Lanka. He is also supported by influential Tamil National Alliance (TNA). The two minorities together form around 20 per cent population. On the other hand, Gotabaya has much more influence in the Sinhala dominated Southern and Central Sri Lanka. In 2015 election, Sirisena was backed by Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). This time, JVP also contested the election. The JVP also has his own areas of influence in the Sinhalese-Buddhist dominated Southern Sri Lanka.
Tourism industry suffered a lot following Easter Sunday bombings. Sri Lanka attracts tourist from across the world as the island nation has many things to offer. Hospitality industry is one of the major source of revenue and contributes significantly in the economy.
The Indian diplomats are also keeping a close watch on the Sri Lankan results. After Mahinda lost elections in 2015, he alleged that Indian spy agency RAW was behind his defeat. India had denied any role of RAW in the defeat of Mahinda.
During Sirisena regime, relations with India improved. It is believed that if Gotabaya wins the election, then, he will ‘restore relations’ with China. Mahinda was adopting a pro-China policy and since then, China is investing massively in the country. The rising influence of China in neighbouring countries is always a matter of concern for India. India needs to strategise how to counter growing influence of China in our neighbourhood. India needs to take the initiative and promise all kinds of help if Gotabaya wins.