Colombo: Sri Lanka will go to the polls on November 16 to choose the next president of the island nation, as its $87bn economy struggles to recover from a political crisis and the aftermath of the deadly Easter bombings in April. The Election Commission chairman Mahinda Deshapriya said almost 16 million people in the country are eligible to vote in the election.
President Maithripaa Sirisena is not contesting the election. The next president will have fewer powers than his predecessors, following a 2015 constitutional amendment that will hand more powers to the prime minister and Parliament after the election. Slow economic growth, national security, endemic corruption and deep ethnic and religious divisions in the South Asian nation will be key issues at the polls, political analysts say. The main contenders are Podujana Peramuna party candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's centre-right United National Party candidate Sajith Premadasa. Gotabaya, 70, is widely seen as the frontrunner due to his popularity among Sri Lanka's Sinhala Buddhist majority - but is feared by minorities and victims of human rights violations.
As campaigning enters the final stretch, Sajith Premadasa is staking his hopes for victory on the country's first-time voters. He aims to garner support from those who came of age after the strategically located South Asian island ended a decade of increasingly authoritarian rule.
The youth vote accounts for 1.5 million votes out of the country's 16 million registered voters. Analysts include them in the decisive "undecided voter" group, now an estimated 20% of the ballot. Others in this demographic are educated urban voters and large swathes of the linguistic and religious minorities in the predominantly Sinhala-Buddhist country.
Sri Lanka "needs a cleanup," Premadasa said. But not by "sacrificing our cherished democracy and individual freedoms ... It is time to go beyond party politics, the politics of greed," he said. Gotabaya, a hawkish member of the authoritarian former government, is facing off against Premadasa. Gotabaya is relying on his image as a tough-talking former defense secretary to court the strict law-and-order vote.