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Your Guide to Sri Lanka's 2015 Presidential Election

Sri Lankan election commission workers carry ballot boxes while escorted by police on the eve of presidential elections in Colombo. Image by Chamila KarunaRathne. Copyright Demotix (7/1/2015)

Sri Lankan election commission workers carry ballot boxes while escorted by police on the eve of presidential elections in Colombo. Image by Chamila KarunaRathne. Copyright Demotix (7/1/2015)

Sri Lankans are going to the polls on Thursday, January 8, in one of the most closely contested, significant presidential elections in the nation's history.

Every six years, Sri Lanka elects a new president and legislature. The parliament has 225 members, elected to six-year terms. It is a multi-party system, dominated by two political groups. There are 15 million eligible voters in Sri Lanka and over 12,000 polling stations have been set for elections. Voter turnout in the previous election was around 75 percent.

In the 2010 presidential election, Mahinda Rajapaksa of United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) won with 58 percent of the vote. Shortly after being elected, Rajapaksa successfully amended the constitution to concentrate political power in the presidency, and remove term limits on the office. This time, Rajapaksa has preponed the elections, holding them two years ahead of schedule. Rajapaksa, the region's longest-serving leader, will try for a third term, amidst criticisms that he abuses his authority and seeks a dynasty.

The actors
Rajapaksa has the backing of a number of small constituent parties of the UPFA, including the Ceylon Workers’ Congress, and Communist Party. He has the support of the Buddhist extremist group Bodu Bala Sena. Rajapaksa's platform, titled “Mahinda's Vision—The World Winning Path“, pledges to introduce an entirely new constitution within a year.

Supporters of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa cheer during an election campaign rally in Palmadulla, Sri Lanka. Image by Chamila Karunarathne. Copyright Demotix (3/1/2015)

Supporters of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa cheer during an election campaign rally in Palmadulla, Sri Lanka. Image by Chamila Karunarathne. Copyright Demotix (3/1/2015)

Rajapakse has actively campaigned alongside celebrities like sporting Bollywood megastar Salman Khan, creating no small amount of buzz. Touring the former war zone in the country's North, Khan urged minority Tamils to back Rajapakse in the election, calling him the “known devil”.

Rajapakse's chief opponent and former health minister, Maithripala Sirisena, is a surprise pick by the United National Party, the main opposition party, which is backed by twelve smaller parties. The remaining seventeen candidates are independents or belong to minor political parties.  UNP only revealed Sirisena's nomination on November 21, 2014, after the election was announced.

Sirisena released his platform, titled “A Compassionate Maithri Governance—A Stable Country“, which pledged to abolish the country's presidential government within 100 days of being elected. Under a new parliamentary system, Sirisena says he would appoint UNP leader Ranil Wickremasinghe as prime minister.

Sirisena has launched a campaign attacking Rajapaksa where he is weakest: the President's apparent nepotism. During Rajapaksa's presidency, his three brothers and his son have all risen to positions of considerable influence in the national government. 

Maithripala Sirisena, it's worth noting, took a great risk when he left the Rajapaksa Administratiojn. Indeed, the Asian Human Rights Commission recently expressed concern about his personal safety, noting that he's suffered several attempted attacks over the past several days.

Sri Lanka's main opposition presidential candidate Maithripala Sirisena reads a newspaper during a campaign rally for the upcoming presidential elections in Colombo. Image by Chamila Karunarathne. Copyright Demotix (31/12/2014)

Sri Lanka's main opposition presidential candidate Maithripala Sirisena reads a newspaper during a campaign rally for the upcoming presidential elections in Colombo. Image by Chamila Karunarathne. Copyright Demotix (31/12/2014)

Use of social media
#IVotedSL is a trilingual campaign launched by Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) to encourage citizens to exercise their voting rights.

Image courtesy CMEV. Copyright Free.

Image courtesy CMEV. Copyright Free.

The campaign calls on voters to take a public pledge that they will exercise their right to vote on January 8th. An individual can signify this pledge by changing their profile/account picture and cover/banner page on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or any other social media platform. On election day those who take the pledge can share through social media a picture of the fifth digit (little finger) of their left hand which is marked with indelible ink using the hashtag #IVotedSL.

President Rajapaksa's quite active Twitter account has 92,600 followers. According to an analysis by Groundviews, however, large numbers of these subscribers and admirers might be less than organic.

According to blogger Indi Samarajiwa:

The dominant hashtag for this election is, by far, #PresPollSL (best source for news, in my opinion). CMEV recommends #IVotedSL for voting related stuff.

Samarajiwa also analyses the Facebook engagement of both the campaigns. He concludes that Sirisena's readers seem to engage far more with the campaign's content, despite the fact that Rajapakse has almost twice as many followers.

Irregularities and violence
Supporters of Sri Lanka's ruling party have faced accusations of violating election laws during campaign. The Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) identifies an “unparalleled misuse [by the ruling party] of state resources and media”. According to Human Rights Watch, local monitoring groups have reported numerous acts of election-related violence and intimidation during the month-long campaign.

Resources

According to the latest opinion survey by the Centre of Policy Analysis (CPA), 86.9 percent of Sri Lankans think their vote can make a difference in the outcome of the presidential election. Let's hope everyone can exercise their voting rights peacefully!

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