COLOMBO – Worries about Islamic extremism will be paramount for many Sri Lankan voters while others hope to block former leaders accused of human rights violations from returning to power in Saturday’s presidential election, the country’s first national polls since last Easter’s deadly suicide attacks.
Simply put, fear is driving the election in Sri Lanka, a South Asian island nation of 22 million people off India’s southern tip. A decade of peace following three decades of civil war was shattered earlier this year when homegrown militants pledging loyalty to the Islamic State group detonated suicide bombs at three churches and three hotels, killing 269 people.
The election also mirrors the global trend of populist strongmen appealing to disgruntled majorities amid rising nationalism — seen as well in recent elections in neighboring India.
With a record 35 candidates vying for the presidency, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a former defense official under his brother, ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa, was widely expected to triumph over ruling party Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa. But as the election approached, the race became very close.
Premadasa entered the fray after an open rebellion against his party leader, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, rallying support by pledging to boost welfare programs and by embracing disgruntled party stalwarts.
Many in Sri Lanka’s ethnic Sinhalese Buddhist majority favor Gotabaya because of his role in the Rajapaksa government’s decisive victory a decade ago over ethnic Tamil rebels, ending the secessionist civil war. But some minority Tamils and Muslims fear his reputation.
Gotabaya is accused of persecuting critics and overseeing what were called “white van squads” that whisked away journalists, activists and Tamil civilians suspected of links to the Tamil Tigers rebel group. Some were tortured and released, while others simply disappeared. The Rajapaksa brothers are also accused of condoning rape and extrajudicial killings and deliberately targeting civilians and hospitals during the war.
Gotabaya, a retired army officer, migrated to the United States after leaving service. He returned when his brother was elected president in 2005 and was appointed secretary to the Ministry of Defense. Though a bureaucratic position, he was given immense power and acted as a virtual second-in-command.
Gotabaya says he has renounced his U.S. citizenship to seek the presidency, focusing his campaign on national security following the Easter attacks, which exposed serious lapses in intelligence coordination between spy and security agencies.
“The first duty of our government is to ensure total security within the country,” Gotabaya said in August when he was named the opposition’s presidential candidate. “I state with confidence that we can make our country the safest in the world again.”
Gotabaya has said he will disregard a U.N. Human Rights Commission resolution that Sri Lanka signed promising to investigate alleged wartime atrocities and share political power with Tamils.
The ruling party candidate, Premadasa, is the son of former President Ranasingha Premadasa, who was assassinated by a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber in 1993.
Premadasa entered politics the following year, joining Parliament in 2000 and later serving as deputy health minister. His party lost power in 2004 and for the next decade he was an opposition lawmaker.
Following his father’s footsteps, Premadasa built up his reputation through pro-poor projects, but with Sri Lankans demanding justice for the Easter Sunday attacks, he has also emphasized security on the campaign trail.
“We shall institute strong legislative measures to ensure that we eradicate terrorism and extremism of all sorts — ethnic, religious-based extremism, including hate speech,” he said Tuesday.
He has promised to appoint Sarath Fonseka, the army commander who led government troops to victory over the Tamil Tigers, as defense minister, in a bid to match Gotabaya’s defense credentials.
“The main issue that is driving the election is the fear factor,” said Jehan Perera, head of the independent peace activist group National Peace Council. “The fear, on the one hand, that international forces are interfering in this country, are subverting this country as occurred more spectacularly with the Easter Sunday bombings, which created havoc in our country.”
On the other hand, he said, people fear “a return to the past where there were human rights violations, where there were disappearances.”
Lakshman Senanayake, a businessman from southern Sri Lanka, said he backs Gotabaya because “from a security point of view I believe there will be a good improvement if Gotabaya gets elected.”
“There were many presidents before who could not finish off the war for so many years. It was possible only because the brothers worked in one accord without looking back.”
The concern among Tamils in the north is to ensure that Gotabaya doesn’t return.
“How many lives were lost and how many abductions took place under the Mahinda government?” said a 71-year-old man in northern Jaffna, who identified himself only as Joseph.