A family of strongmen who tilted the nation toward a deep reliance on China took a slim early lead in the early count of Sri Lanka’s presidential election, against the current government that promises more freedom but failed to avert terror attacks that killed over 250 people in April.
With about 10% of the polling divisions declared, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, 70, whose brother Mahinda had close ties with Beijing during his 10-year rule, led by 46.6% to 45.5% for Sajith Premadasa, 52, according to state Rupavahini, with the rest split among others of the record 35 candidates. Initial returns included postal ballots and polling divisions in the island’s northern Jaffna peninsula.
Rajapaksa is running as the candidate for the nationalist Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party. The former defense secretary has made national security his key campaign platform, riding the tide of growing disillusionment among the population after the deadly Easter attacks highlighted the security failures of the present government.
Premadasa, also from a prominent political dynasty and a member of the ruling alliance that took power four years ago vowing to push for greater democracy, more transparent finances and an independent foreign policy with improved ties with India and the U.S.
The choices for voters were stark.
A Rajapaksa presidency could take the island nation back toward greater authoritarianism and abuse of power and an era of impunity for human rights abuses and corruption.
His brother Mahinda Rajapaksa’s tenure in office saw a marked deterioration in democracy, in particular press freedom, said Katharine Adeney, director of the University of Nottingham Asia Research Institute who specializes in South Asia politics and ethnic conflict.
“It’s likely that Gotabaya will have learnt the lessons of the 2015 defeat — that he needs to be careful not to alienate the majority Sinhalese by undermining the democratic process too much — but there are real concerns about the fate of minorities, both Muslims and Tamils, under his leadership,” Adeney said in an email.
Premadasa has pledged to reduce import duties, reform taxes and state-owned enterprises, and open up the economy for foreign investment. He has also promised reconciliation measures to help the country heal from the wounds of the civil war. But his party faces a credibility crisis after the security lapses that led to the Easter attacks on churches and hotels.
“Premadasa is making a virtue out of being less authoritarian than the Rajapaksa family but it’s unclear if he has a clear policy program, and even less if he can deliver,” Adeney said.
The support of the minority Tamil and Muslim populations, who together form about 25% of the country’s population, will be crucial for Premadasa.
Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya said the voter turnout across the island could be as much as 84%.
“We have finished the election with no serious incidence of violence,” Deshapriya said on Saturday. He expects the final results to be announced today.
Gunmen opened fire and pelted stones at a convoy of about 20 buses transporting “hundreds” of Muslim voters in northwest Sri Lanka in the early hours of Saturday, said Manjula Gajanayake, national coordinator for the privately-run Centre for Monitoring Election Violence.
“The reason for the shooting incident is definitely political elements trying to prevent voting,” Gajanayake said, adding that the victims, who escaped unhurt, had been able to exercise their franchise.
The winner of Sri Lanka’s election will inherit a country with an economy where growth has slowed to a more than five-year low of 1.6% in the quarter ended June, and which has a debt level hovering at 83% of GDP.
“If Gotabhaya wins he will improve the country,” said Manel Perera, 68, a housewife in the Kotte area of the capital. “Otherwise the country will go down further.”
Rajive Premathilake, 54, a business executive who said he voted for Premadasa, said the next government needs to ensure “democracy, freedom and civil liberties while getting the economy going. It can’t be one at the expense of the other.”
Investors have taken a wait and see approach ahead of the elections, said Adrian Perera, chief operating officer, Equicapital Investments in Colombo. The benchmark stock index has risen 16% in the past six months, making it one of the 10 best-performing equity markets globally.
“If Gotabhaya wins, there maybe a speculative rally, on expectations he will set up a new government,” Perera said. “But for long-term investments to come in, we need to see parliamentary elections concluded and the fiscal budget presented.”