External Affairs

Lanka Votes as Former Strongman Rajapaksa Eyes Comeback

Colombo: Sri Lankans today queued up in large numbers to elect a new parliament with former strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa eyeing a political comeback as Prime Minister months after being toppled as President by Maithripala Sirisena.

Polling in Sri Lanka’s parliamentary election was reported to be steady to brisk after polls opened at 7 am local time. Long queues were seen at polling booths in the capital Colombo with voters also showing enthusiasm in the outer districts, poll monitoring groups said.

In the northern Tamil regions the turn out is expected to be over 50 per cent, poll observers said. President Sirisena voted in the north central town of Polonnaruwa while Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe exercised his franchise here and expressed confidence over winning the polls.

Former president Rajapaksa, who is a key player in the election, voted in his home constituency of Hambantota. “We are winning and I am confident of forming the government,” 69-year-old Rajapaksa said.

Sirisena has vowed not to make Rajapaksa premier even if his United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) wins a majority. The election to the 225-seat national parliament promises a close battle between the United National Party (UNP) of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and the UPFA of President Sirisena.

15 million out of the island’s 20 million population are eligible to vote at over 19,000 stations in the election being held under electoral districts-based proportional representation system. 196 members will be elected from districts while 29 will be appointed based on the national proportion of votes polled by each party.

To have a working majority government, 113 seats are needed in the National Assembly.

The rivalry between Wickremesinghe and Sirisena is limited to party positions they hold as the former’s support helped the latter become president in January by defeating Rajapaksa. However, the real challenge to the UNP comes from Sinhala strongman Rajapaksa.

Rajapaksa forced himself into the UPFA reckoning to contest the parliamentary poll, an action unprecedented for a former president of the country. Sirisena was not in favour of granting Rajapaksa a party ticket but his party allies have defied his wishes.

Accusing Rajapaksa of alienating Tamil and Muslim minorities from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), Sirisena had last week asked his predecessor not to create divisions in the party.

Sirisena was Rajapaksa’s health minister until he came forward as the opposition unity candidate to challenge the then-President last year. He then handed Rajapaksa a shock defeat in the polls. Polling will close at 4 pm (local time) and the first results are to be announced around midnight, officials said.

The 225 MPs are to be elected from 22 electoral districts for a five-year term.