Sri Lanka goes to the polls on Saturday, and a minority vote could decide who will eventually rule the tiny island country.
Sri Lankans will be deciding between two distinctly different presidential front-runners this weekend, who embody the polarised South Asian nation.
While 35 candidates will be running for the presidency — where a semi-presidential or dual executive system exists — two of them are leading the pack.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a hardliner and the candidate of the Sri Lanka People's Front (SLPP), will come up against Sajith Premadasa, a relatively moderate politician and the candidate of the governing United National Party (UNP).
The island nation of 22 million people, with significant Hindu and Muslim minorities making up nearly 25 percent of the country’s population, and Buddhists as the majority, has been through a protracted civil war in the past.
Rajapaksa was permanent secretary of the Ministry of Defence under the previous president Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is also his brother, and is burnishing his security credentials during the campaign. In 2009, he oversaw the elimination process of the Tamil Tigers, a Tamil-dominated guerilla group, which launched an armed campaign against the Sri Lankan state for more than 25 years.
But he has also been accused of gross human rights violations in the 2009 military campaign, where up to 40,000 civilians may have been killed by government forces, according to the UN.
Like Rajapaksa, Premadasa, also comes from a powerful political dynasty. Premadasa’s father was killed by Tamil separatists in 1993 in a suicide attack. He is a minister in the current cabinet under Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, with whom he has a contentious relationship.
Division and security
While the two main contenders, Rajapaksa and Premadasa, are from the Buddhist majority, known as Sinhalese, their approach to Hindu and Muslim minorities appears to be different.
Rajapaksa, who taps into Sinhalese nationalism, is feared by minorities. Since the end of the civil war, several disappearances and extrajudicial killings were reported by human rights groups during his tenure in the defence ministry.
"The prospect of a new Rajapaksa presidency has heightened ethnic tensions and raised fears among minorities and democratic activists," an International Crisis Group statement said on Wednesday.
After the April attacks by Daesh, which killed more than 260 people and wounded scores of others, Rajapaksa’s profile has raised as a man who can ensure the security of the country, taking a hardline stance on minorities.
The current government has been harshly criticised both within and outside the country, for failing to stop Daesh attacks.
"We were introducing a clear programme to ensure security of this country after we ended terrorism," Rajapaksa told an audience this week, reminding them that the current government failed “to give prominence to national security. That is why bombs started to go off again in this country".
On the other hand, Premadasa, whose party came in power in 2015 in part thanks to the Tamil vote, has been a more accommodating candidate for both Tamils and Muslims. The Tamils boycotted or abstained from voting in two previous elections, allowing Gotabaya’s brother to win back-to-back elections in 2005 and 2010.
While Premadasa’s party largely could not deliver what it promised on addressing the alleged human rights violations of previous governments, people could at least stage protests and talk about political issues more openly during the United National Party’s tenure, according to media reports from the country.
"We will start a new era within a united Sri Lanka by strengthening national security, protecting sovereignty and integrity, safeguarding political freedom, and giving prominence to Buddhism, while also protecting other religions," Premadasa said.
Experts predict that if the country’s Sinhalese majority is split down the middle among the front-runners, then, the minority vote could end up deciding the winner.
The Tamil National Alliance, which is the leading group among the Tamils will back Premadasa. “Very clearly war crimes were committed. Gotabaya was the face of that terror,” M.A. Sumanthiran, one of the group’s leaders, said.
The country’s struggling economy is intimately linked with its politics.
In 2018, Sri Lanka went through a constitutional crisis, which diminished financial confidence, contributing to the decline of the country’s economic prospects. The April attacks were a major blow to Sri Lanka’s tourism industry and the country sank into a recession.
According to the IMF, the country’s GDP will decline to 2.7 percent in 2019. The South Asian nation also suffers from massive foreign debt amounting to $34.4 billion, which corresponds to 38 percent of the country’s GDP.
Most of its debt is owed to China, which developed a strong partnership with the Rajapaksas when they were ruling the Sri Lankan state.