Sri Lanka votes for president in shadow of Easter Sunday attack

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Sri Lanka presidential candidates Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Sajith Premadasa, November 2019
Front-runners Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Sajith Premadasa

Sri Lankans have been voting to choose a new president, seven months after a devastating terror attack killed more than 250 people.

A total of 35 candidates are vying for votes in the presidential election, the third since the end of the country’s decades-long civil war in 2009.

The current president, however, was not on the ballot.

Maithripala Sirisena decided against running after coming under criticism following the Easter Sunday bombings.

The attack by Islamic State militants, which targeted churches and top-end hotels, left at least 253 people dead.

The government was forced to later admit it had suffered a “major intelligence lapse”, with the defence secretary revealing an Indian intelligence warning from the beginning of the month about planned attacks was not properly shared by the authorities.

Just before polling got under way, there were reports of violence in the country’s north-west as gunmen opened fire on a convoy of buses carrying Muslim voters, but police said there were no casualties.

Turnout was reported to be high, with election monitors predicting that it would reach 80%.

Who could be Sri Lanka’s next president?

Despite the two-foot long ballot paper to accommodate all the candidates’ names, this is an election with two clear frontrunners, one of whom has been accused of human rights abuses during his decade as defence secretary under his brother’s presidential rule.

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was in power when thousands of people – particularly Tamils – went missing in what have been described as enforced disappearances between 2005 and 2015.

But it is also his role in ending the civil war which boosted Mr Rajapaksa’s fortunes after this year’s Easter Sunday attacks.

Supporters of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party presidential candidate Gotabhaya Rajapaksa attend a campaign rally in Homagama on November 13, 2019

His tough stance on security impressed many in the country’s Sinhalese Buddhist majority following the attack, with supporters choosing to overlook the various allegations against him – including questions over citizenship.

The importance of security to voters has not gone unnoticed by his main rival, fellow frontrunner Sajith Premadasa, who launched his campaign with a promise that if he won, he would hire the army chief who defeated the Tamil Tigers, Sarath Fonseka, to oversee national security.

However, Mr Premadasa has more regularly focused on social issues, promising to eradicate poverty and improve housing.

A man walks past the posters of Sajith Premadasa, Sri Lanka"s presidential candidate of the New Democratic Front alliance, in Colombo, Sri Lanka

Like his rival, he already has a loyal support base. The son of a president who was assassinated by Tamil Tiger rebels in 1993, he is the current housing minister and has managed to take on the Rajapaksa family in their own region.

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