- Sri Lankans trickled into polling centres early on Saturday
- 35 people are in the race for president's post
- Former defence secretary, and government minister frontrunners
Sri Lankans trickled into polling centres early on Saturday to choose a new president for the island-nation still struggling to recover from Easter Sunday attacks on hotels and churches in April this year that have heavily weighed on its tourism-dependent economy.
While 35 people are in the race, former defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and government minister Sajith Premadasa are seen as the frontrunners.
Mr Rajapaksa is the candidate for the opposition party Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna. He along with his brother and former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, is seen to have put an end to 26 years of civil war, crushing the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or LTTE. This makes him somewhat of a hero for the ruling Sinhalese Buddhist majority. He has promised tough action to fight terrorism and make national security a major priority especially after the Easter bombing attack that killed 269.
His main opponent Sajith Premadasa, son of former President Ranasinghe Premadasa, is current minister for housing and deputy leader of the ruling United National Party. Tamil National Alliance, the largest party representing Tamils, has endorsed Premadasa as Tamils fear the return of Gotabaya.
Muslims constitute 9.7 per cent of the population in Sri Lanka and Tamils 12.6 per cent. The loss of minority votes could cost Gotabaya Rajapaksa this election.
Sajith Premadasa is banking on minority Tamil and Muslim vote which constitutes over 20 per cent of the country's 21 million population.
Mr Premadasa's government could not prevent the Easter Sunday attack but he has said that he will make Sarath Fonseka, former army chief head of national security.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa has said he would make his brother Mahinda his prime minister, bringing back fears that if he is elected, power could get concentrated in one family.
The other two important candidates Anura Kumar Dissanayake of People's Liberation Front (JVP) alliance and Mahesh Senanayake of the National People's Party. They are not expected to win but how much they split the vote could decide the eventual winner.
The main issues in this election are security after the Easter Sunday blasts and the economy, given a $34.4 billion foreign debt.
From India's point of view, the return of the Rajapaksa clan would be reason for concern, given the Chinese tilt of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Two Chinese submarines were allowed to dock in Sri Lanka without informing India when he was in-charge. China also managed to lure Sri Lanka with soft loans for ports and roads and ended up pushing the country into a debt trap and leasing out of the Hambantota port to China.
Hambantota is ideally located to refuel Chinese warships and submarines traversing across the Indian Ocean.
The other concern for India is devolution of powers to the Tamil ethnic minorities in the north and east. In October, Gotabaya Rajapaksa also said he won't investigate human rights violations and war crimes during the civil war, defying the nation's agreement with the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).
In October 2018, President Maitripala Sirisena tried to remove Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and replace him with Mahinda Rajapaksa but the Supreme Court reversed it. A win for Gotabaya Rajapaksa would set up an immediate face-off with parliament which is led by the UNP and possible snap poll.
But not all is smooth between Sajith Premadasa and Mr Wickremesinghe either though they are in the same party. Ranil Wickremesinghe had opposed Mr Premadasa's candidature.
About 16 million people are eligible to vote in the elections, with the ballot allowing voters to choose up to three candidates in order of preference.
Votes will be counted soon after polling stations close but the results are not expected before Sunday.
(With inputs from agencies)