Voters still reeling from the devastating Easter Sunday attacks must choose between two powerful political families.
Hannah Ellis-Petersen South Asia correspondent./theguardian.
What is happening?
Sri Lanka goes to the polls on Saturday for a presidential election that will be a decisive moment for its future. The country is still reeling from the Easter Sunday bombings of April 2019, in which more than 250 people died, as well as 18 months of political instability and infighting.
There are 35 candidates but the real race is between the former defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, candidate for SLPP, the Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalist party; and Sajith Premadasa, running for the ruling United National party (UNP). Both come from powerful political families but are very different candidates. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is one of seven brothers who have dominated Sri Lankan politics for over a decade: Mahinda was president for 10 years until the 2015 election, with Gotabaya Rajapaksa serving as his defence minister. They are credited with ending Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war between the majority Sinhalese Buddhists and the minority Tamils. However many human rights atrocities are said to have been carried out under Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s watch as de facto head of the military and he is still subject to multiple lawsuits relating to torture, fraud and corruption.
Alan Keenan, Sri Lanka project director of the International Crisis Group (ICG), said: “Gotabaya is known as the most hawkish, the most nationalist, the most ruthless, the closest to the military and the volatile in terms of his temperament, of all the Rajapaksa brothers.”
Sajith Premadasa is the son of Ranasinghe Premadasa, who first served as Sri Lankan prime minister and then was President from 1989 until his assassination by Tamil separatists in 1993. He was the first lower caste political leader in Sri Lanka’s modern history and is still celebrated for pulling Sri Lankans out of poverty with progressive housing and welfare policies. Sajith Premadasa has played strongly on this legacy in his campaign, positioning himself as a man of the people and not the political elite.
Who is likely to win?
Rajapaksa has long been seen as the frontrunner but a few recent scandals, including the revelation that he has not given up his US citizenship, have dented his campaign. Sajith Premadasa’s campaign has been gathering momentum, particularly among minority Tamils and Muslims. While Rajapaksa can rely on strong support from the Singhalese Buddhist majority, who make up 75% of the country, he will need at least some minority votes to win.
A supporter hangs posters of SLPP presidential candidate and former defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. Photograph: MA Pushpa Kumara/EPA
While many Muslims are angry that they have not been protected under the current UNP government, they still overwhelmingly feel they will be safer under Premadasa rather than a Rajapaksa-led government. However, the Rajapaksa campaign recently adopted a “better to be with us than against us” tactic to subtly hint to the Muslim community that things will be a lot worse for them if they overwhelmingly vote against Rajapaksa but he comes into power anyway.
What are the key issues?
Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s campaign has played on, and stoked, security fears that have lingered since the Easter attacks, while positioning him as an authoritarian strongman who would keep the country safe. This position has a lot of support among the Sinhalese Buddhist majority, especially because security and stability were the two greatest failings of the UNP government. The dysfunction that resulted from the public rivalry between the current president, Maithripala Sirisena, and the prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, has been blamed for the failure to stop the Easter attacks.
However there are fears that a Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency could bring back the repression and human rights abuses that were prominent during the civil war and in the immediate years after, when the Rajapaksas were in power. Many in the Muslim community, who have faced attacks and boycotts, fear what the return of the Rajapaksas would mean for their safety and place in society.
While Premadasa has also addressed issues of security, he has put the economy, and improving the lives of ordinary people, at the core of his campaign, and with increasing success. He has also played on a general frustration at the corruption that has plagued Sri Lankan politics; unlike the Rajapaksa family he is one of the few politicians untouched by scandal or allegations.
Will it be a fair election?
So far the campaign has unfolded without any of the turbulence of previous elections and without any reports of violence or intimidation. However some fear that after Mahinda’s Rajapaksa’s loss in the 2015 elections, which took the brothers by surprise, they will not want to take any chances.
“Sri Lanka has had many abusive governments in the past but the Rajapaksas have showed that they are willing to bend the rules to such an extent, and concentrate power to such an extent, that they really are a threat to the sustainability of democratic institutions,” said Keenan.
What could this election mean for human rights?
Since the Easter attacks Sri Lanka has seen a return of the police state, with security forces out on the streets; new laws restricting freedom of expression; the targeting and harassment of minorities, in particular Muslims; and surveillance of journalists, lawyers and NGOs.
Over the decade Mahinda Rajapaksa was in power the police and the judiciary did not function independently, and many fear a return of such a concentration of power in the hands of the brothers.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa has also explicitly said he would repeal Sri Lanka’s commitment to a UN human rights agenda for postwar reconciliation and accountability. Omar Waraich, south Asia campaigns director of Amnesty International, said: “If the Rajapaksas do get into power it will definitely mean a total reversal on Sri Lanka’s international commitments to human rights and accountability for the crimes committed in the civil war.”
There is also evidence Rajapaksa is sympathetic to the militant Buddhist organisations that thrived initially under his watch in 2013 and have continued to threaten and assault Muslims, particularly after the Easter Sunday attacks.