By Munza Mushtaq [*-BYLINE*]
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AA) – Voting begun across Sri Lanka at 7 a.m. (0130GMT) Saturday, with nearly 16 million voters expected to cast ballots to elect the a new president.
The contest has seen an unprecedented 35 candidates, the highest number in the history of a presidential election.
But despite the large number of contenders, the race is between two candidates: 70-year-old nationalist politician, Gotabaya Rajapaksa from Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and 52-year-old ruling party candidate Sajith Premadasa of the United National Party (UNP).
The election comes just months since the Easter Day attacks that killed at least 259 people, and is considered a litmus test for the incumbent government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Rajapaksa, a former defense secretary who helped defeat separatist armed group LTTE in 2009, is using national security as his poll plank, reminding voters of the bombings, while his rival Premadasa is banking on a social welfare approach pledging to eradicate poverty, provide free housing and even sanitary napkins for women in an effort to address “period poverty.”
Despite the close battle between the two main candidates, both the Rajapaksa and Premadasa camps were upbeat, confident of an election win. Milinda Rajapaksha, a youth leader representing SLPP said that he was 100 percent confidence that Rajapaksa will win the election. “We are certain of winning the election and as per our forecast, we are expecting Mr. Rajapaksa to receive around 52% votes,” he told Anadolu Agency.
Rajapaksha was also of the opinion that his candidate will lose votes in the north and east, which has a predominantly minority population consisting of mostly Tamils and Muslims. “We will lose the north and east, but except for those two, we will win all other areas,” he said.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa has a controversial record as a defense secretary. He has been accused of carrying out war crimes against the Tamils during the final phase of the 26-year civil war against the LTTE.
He has also been accused of supporting Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist organizations such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), which has been leading attacks against Muslims since 2013.
On the other hand, Premadasa is seen as a less harmful candidate, which earned him support of some the main minority parties such as the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and the All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC).
Rasika Jayakody, a youth leader from the UNP said Premadasa is well on the path to be president. “I think he has a very good chance and specially with minorities coming out in large numbers to vote for him and also specially as there is a lot enthusiasm and very high energy at the grassroot level, there is no way he can be defeated,” he told Anadolu Agency.
In the 2015 presidential election, the north and east provinces played a major role in tilting the scales in favor of Sirisena, the outgoing president.
Jayakody, however, admitted the election is a hotly contested election.
“Of course, Mr. Rajapaksa is a force to reckon with whether we like it or not, but I think we can go well over 50%, securing a majority,” he said.
Voting will conclude at 5 p.m. (1130GMT), with final results expected to be announced Sunday.