India watches keenly as Lanka goes to polls

Today, India’s south-eastern neighbour, Sri Lanka, is going for its eighth presidential election.

India watches keenly as Lanka goes to polls

Wooing women: Candidates are promising unprecedented gender reforms.

SY Quraishi

SY Quraishi
Former Chief Election Commissioner

Today, India’s south-eastern neighbour, Sri Lanka, is going for its eighth presidential election. Out of a population of 22 million, 16 million are voters, including 3,00,000 first-time voters. There is a phenomenal increase of polling booths from 35,000 in 2015 to 45,000. These presidential elections are considered crucial for the future of democracy in the country. 

A record number of 35 candidates, twice the number in 2015, are contesting the elections. The earlier record of 22 candidates in 2010 has been left behind. To accommodate such a long list, 66 cm long ballot paper is being used. The pool of candidates, for the first time, does not feature the sitting President, Prime Minister and Leader of Opposition contesting for the post! 

Amongst the 35 candidates, the four prominent candidates are Gotabaya Rajapaksa (SLPP, a Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalist party), Sajith Premadasa (joint candidate of UNF), Anura Kummara Dissanayake (JVP, a leftist party) and Mahesh Senanayake (former army commander). But the contest remains mainly between the first two candidates — Rajapaksa and Premadasa. With Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a former defence minister and brother of Mahinda Rajapaksa, and Sajith Premadasa, housing minister and son of the first lower caste Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa, both the candidates have their roots well entrenched in the political system. 

Banking upon his role in putting an end to a bloody civil war that rocked the nation for three decades, Rajapaksa exploited the prevailing insecurity amongst the masses after the April Easter terror attacks. On the other side, Premadasa has portrayed himself as a people-friendly person who is against corruption. He factored in the worsening economic situation of the country strategically, avoiding a faceoff on the topic of national security, the main poll plank of his rival. 

Sinhalese, predominantly Buddhist, who constitute 75 per cent of the population, outrightly support Rajapaksa. However, with the other two candidates, namely Dissanayake and Senanayake, in the fore, diversion of votes is inevitable, making the competition between Rajapaksa and Premadasa stiffer.

Premadasa has largely mobilised the poor and minority communities, including Tamils and Muslims — comprising 25 per cent of the population — through his welfare-oriented manifesto. The minorities, especially, are wary of Rajapaksa as he carries the burden of human rights violation accusations against Tamilians and his proximity to the military.

There is only one woman candidate, Ajantha Perera. For a country that gave the world its first woman prime minister and one of the first female presidents, this is quite startling. Comprising 51.4 per cent of the voting population (higher than India), if every woman decides to vote for her, she can win the elections.

Recognising the importance of women’s vote, the candidates are pitching for unprecedented gender reforms. Sajith Premadasa has published a woman charter that promised improved maternity leaves, safer public transport and free sanitary hygiene products — a promise that gave him the title, ‘Pad Man’. Gotabaya Rajapaksa has promised childcare centres for working women and waiver of rural women’s micro-loan debts. Anura Kummara Dissanayake has assured amendments in marriage and divorce legislations and tougher provisions against sexual abuse. Taking forward the tradition of many firsts in these elections, Dissanayake surprised the electorate with his promise to decriminalise gay sex in Sri Lanka.

In a move to increase the female participation in the political system, the Sri Lankan government introduced 25 per cent reservation in local government. But the country continues to remain at the rank of 181 out of 191 countries in terms of women representation in parliament, according to Inter-Parliamentary Union index. 

This election is also special in the sense that it was conducted under the newly created independent Election Commission of Sri Lanka. The commission enjoys a very high credibility. During the electoral process, the EC received 3,519 complaints of election law violation, of which 26 were about incidents of violence, much less than the last elections. Furthering the agenda of minimum disturbance during the polling day, the Sri Lankan police will use body cameras to record and identify election law violators and illegal activities. However, the EC has appeared weak on two major influential fronts: media regulation and campaign expenditure monitoring. 

The commission should not be blamed for the latter as the country still lacks legislation that puts a limit on the campaign expenditure by candidates, mandates disclosure of campaign finance, assets and liabilities of the candidates and which has, in turn, rendered the EC incapable of keeping a watch on unrestricted money flow in elections. The expected consequences of its absence spilled over to this year's presidential elections as well. PAFFREL (People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections) highlighted the rampant use of power and state facilities to influence election in an unwarranted manner. Having said that, it highlighted the relatively less use of state resources in campaigning in 2019 than the last presidential elections. 

The election is being observed by over 150 foreign election observers, including from the Commonwealth, European Commission and some neighbouring countries, including India, besides 19,000 civil society observers. 

India is keenly watching the electoral developments in Sri Lanka for the geopolitical importance of the island nation. As China continues to rise as a formidable force in Asian and global politics, it is imperative for India to maintain the balance of power to neutralise China’s dominance in the Indian Ocean. 

Sri Lanka, the oldest democracy in South Asia, has time and again proved its commitment to the democratic system. Like its last presidential election when it chose democracy over dictatorship, it stands at a juncture where it has to choose between national security and the socio-economic welfare of the country. Going by the global electoral trend, the answer would be obvious, but Sri Lanka has a history of providing the world with its firsts. It would be interesting to see if it follows its own pattern or the world's. 

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