Sri Lankans voted on Saturday for a new president in what could mark a comeback for the Rajapaksa clan, loved for crushing the Tamil Tigers but loathed for alleged war crimes, corruption and cosying up to China.
Despite 85,000 police on duty in an island that emerged from civil war only a decade ago and in April suffered extremist bombings, gunmen attacked a convoy of 100 buses transporting minority voters in the northwest, police said. No casualties were reported.
In the Tamil-dominated northern peninsula of Jaffna, police reported to the Election Commission that the army was illegally manning roadblocks that could inhibit voters reaching polling booths. Police also arrested 10 men there suspected of “trying to create trouble”, a police official said.
At the 2015 election there was a series of explosions in the region that activists said were aimed at reducing turnout. This time there were long queues outside polling stations even before voting began.
Minority Tamils and Muslims are seen as crucial to deciding the winner in the close contest, in which almost 16 million eligible will choose from a record 35 candidates. Results could come as early as midday on Sunday.
The electoral contest sees Gotabaya Rajapaksa, 70, running for the top job almost five years after his charismatic but controversial elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa lost power.
The grey-haired retired army lieutenant colonel — dubbed the “Terminator” by his own family — is promising an infrastructure blitz and better security in the wake of the April attacks that killed 269 people.
“Gotabaya will protect our country,” construction worker Wasantha Samarajjeew, 51, said as he cast his ballot in Colombo.
His main opponent is Sajith Premadasa, 52, from the governing liberal United National Party (UNP), son of assassinated ex-president Ranasinghe Premadasa, pushing security, development and free sanitary pads for poor women.
The Rajapaksas are adored by Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority for defeating the Tigers and ending a 37-year civil war in 2009 in which around 100,000 people lost their lives.
For the same reason, the brothers are detested and feared by many in the Tamil minority, who make up 15 per cent of the population. The conflict ended with some 40,000 Tamil civilians allegedly killed by the army.
During Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency from 2005-15, Gotabaya was defence secretary and effectively ran the security forces, even allegedly overseeing “death squads” that bumped off political rivals, journalists and others. He denies the allegations.
Many Muslims in the Buddhist-majority country of 21.6 million are also worried, having already witnessed increased hostility since the April attacks, including hundreds of homes and shops being trashed.
What also concerns Western countries, as well as India, is that strategically located Sri Lanka moved closer to China under Mahinda, even allowing two Chinese submarines to dock in Colombo in 2014.
Beijing loaned and granted Sri Lanka billions of dollars for infrastructure projects under China’s immense Belt and Road Initiative spanning Asia and beyond. Mahinda says credit was unavailable elsewhere.
Sri Lanka was forced in 2017 to hand Beijing a 99-year lease on the port of Hambantota after being unable to service a $1.4-billion Chinese loan, highlighting for critics the debt dangers of Beijing’s scheme. “Chinese entities were also credibly accused of fuelling corruption, illegally funnelling money to favoured political candidates, and inserting sovereignty-violating provisions into their infrastructure agreements,” said Jeff Smith, a research fellow at US think-tank the Heritage Foundation. — AFP