Your guide to the 2019 Sri Lankan presidential election

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

Sri Lankans are going to the polls on 16 November 2019 to elect a new president after weeks of campaigning which largely focused on national security and religious extremism. The country is still rattled from the Easter Sunday bombings of April 2019 which were inspired by the Islamic State and killed over 250 people.

The political infighting among the ruling national coalition of Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP) came to a head on 26 October, 2018 when President Maithripala Sirisena ousted Ranil Wickremesinghe, the country’s prime minister, and replaced him with former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, triggering a constitutional crisis. Order was restored following court rulings and Wickremesinghe was reinstated as prime minister on 16 December 2018.

Sirisena had emerged the surprise winner in the 2015 presidential election, securing 51.28% votes against incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa Rajapaksa’s 47.28%.

Major Players in the 2019 Election:

Sajith Premadasa of United National Party (UNP), and Gotabaya Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). Image via Wikipedia. CC BY-SA 4.0

Sajith Premadasa of United National Party (UNP), and Gotabaya Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). Image via Wikipedia. CC BY-SA 4.0

A record 35 candidates are running in this year's presidential election, including a retired army chief, two Buddhist monks, and a lone female candidate. The two leading contenders are Sajith Premadasa, Cabinet Minister for Housing, Construction and Cultural Affairs, representing Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP); and former Secretary of Defense Lieutenant Colonel Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa, brother of Mahinda Rajapaksa, representing the opposition party Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP).

The incumbent President Maithripala Sirisena is not seeking re-election, and his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), which has a significant voter base, has not officially endorsed a candidate. In September Siresena announced that he would join a coalition, and on 9 October it became clear that he would be backing Rajapaksa's SLPP.

During the 2018 Sri Lankan local elections, the SLPP emerged as the winner, gaining 40.47%, while Ranil Wickremasinghe's political alliance the United National Front (UNF) gained 29.42% vote.

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa played a leading role in crushing the Tamil rebels and putting an end to the 30 year-long Sri Lankan civil war. He is often criticised for his alleged role in torture, murder and other human rights violations during the civil war. Amresh Gunasingham writes in the Diplomat:

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is unpopular in Tamil majority areas in the north and east of the country, over his handling of the civil war. The Muslim community, on the other hand, might be divided, analysts say. As such, Rajapaksa would need to carry a significant proportion of the Sinhalese vote, although even here, such calculations are complicated by Premadasa’s reputation as a grassroots politician which may resonate with the rural masses among the majority Sinhala Buddhists.

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa's popularity as a presidential candidate has increased since the emergence of reports that the current government failed to prevent the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks despite receiving prior intelligence warnings. His opponents, however, raised questions about irregularities surrounding the renunciation of his United States citizenship.

Rajapaksa is deemed pro-China and wants to restore relations with that country. Rajapaksa also said that he will not recognise an agreement the government made with the United Nations Human Rights Council to investigate alleged war crimes during the nation's civil war.

Sajith Premadasa, the son of former President Ranasinghe Premadasa, who was assassinated in 1993, is a favourable choice for Tamil and Muslim minorities, who represent a quarter of electorate. His campaign promises tougher laws to tackle religious “extremism” and “terrorism”, to eradicate poverty, and improve housing in the country under a slogan of “shelter for all by 2025.”

Election Preparations

Sri Lanka has a semi-presidential system, where the president has executive power as head of state and governs in partnership with a prime minister and a cabinet recommended by the prime minister. The prime minister and the cabinet members are elected from the Parliament. Parliament consists of 225 representatives, 196 are elected and 29 appointed by proportional representation based on the results of the parliamentary election.

More than 15.9 million registered voters among a total population of 21.8 million are eligible to vote in the November 16 election. The polls will open at 7 a.m. (01:30 GMT) and closer at 5 PM (11:30 GMT). During the 2015 election, voter turnout out was 81.5 percent, the highest in South Asian region.

There is one notable rule in this election: “If no candidate wins more than 50% of the vote, the winner among the top two is determined after tallying the preferences of voters who backed all the other candidates.”

A total of 80 observers from the member states of the European Union will be monitoring the election in all the nine districts of Sri Lanka. The Commonwealth Observer Group (COG) has also sent a team to monitor the elections.

The Center For Monitoring Election violence is also looking at the election spending of the various parties:


Further reading:

  1. A week that will shake Sri Lanka’s future – Professor Jayadeva Uyangoda, Ground Views, November 11, 2019.
  2. Sri Lanka: Shadows of the civil war loom over presidential elections – Silvia Mayr, South Asia Democratic Forum, November 6, 2019.
  3. Sri Lanka's presidential election: What you need to know – Hannah Ellis-Petersen, The Guardian, November 13, 2019
  4. In Sri Lanka, presidential election deepens religious divisions – Asad Hashim, Al Jazeera, November 14, 2019.
  5. The Electoral Consequences of Sri Lanka’s Crisis – Devaka Gunawardena, The, November 10, 2019.
  6. Sri Lankan journalists fear the situation may worsen after the vote – Bharatha Mallawarachi, Washington Post, November 14, 2019
  7. Gota or Sajith? – The Agony of Choice – A 10 Part Blog by Nanda Wanninayaka, Personal Blog, November 13, 2019

Related Global Voices Coverage:

  1. A series of bomb attacks on churches and hotels spark terror in Sri Lanka, April 2019
  2. Anti-Muslim attacks stoke tensions and incite fear amongst mourning Sri Lankans, May 2019
  3. “The people's voices” prevail: Sri Lanka's prime ministerial crisis to be put to a parliamentary vote, November 2018
  4. Your Guide to Sri Lanka's 2015 Presidential Election, January 2015

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