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Voting begins in crucial poll

From seven am today Sri Lankans will go to the polls to elect a new President at 12, 845 polling stations across the island.

As of this writing, it looks like the most peaceful and incident-free election in many years, an achievement of the creation of an Independent National Elections Commission and Police Commission. Those were two key reforms Sri Lankans voted for in 2015.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa campaigning in Colombo/SLPP Media

The battle between the contestants is also a struggle to replace Sri Lanka’s septuagenarian leadership with younger leaders.

In the fray are Gotabaya Rajapaksa, 69, the former Secretary to the Ministry of Defense and the nominee of the Rajapaksa family dominated Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna.

Sajith Premadasa surfs the crowd/Amitha Tennekoon RepublicNext

His most serious challenger Sajith Premadasa 52, representing the United National Party-led New Democratic Front is from a different generation. Also in the race is the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna leader, 50-year-old Anura Kumara Dissanayake, who is the nominee of the National People’s Movement.

The 32 other contestants range from former Army Commander General Mahesh Senanayake to Environmental Activist Dr Ajantha Perera and businessman Rohan Pallewatte. The Elections Commission has noted that “at least eight” candidates are “dummies” put up by the leading candidates to have more polling and counting agents looking after their interests.

During the relatively short campaign, the debate has centred on several key issues. Rajapaksa has promised “discipline and national security” as well as a string of freebies such as fertilizer and jobs for the poor. Rajapaksa has also been media unfriendly, appearing at just the one Press Conference and shunning interviews.

Anura Kumara Dissanayake greets supporters in Tangalle/JVP Media

Premadasa has opened up a robust conversation on Human Rights, particularly Women’s Rights and swung his party’s priorities back to its roots by promising a Social Democratic agenda that replaces the Neo-Liberalism expounded by the UNP leadership over the past decade.  

Dissanayake’s promise has taken the debate even further advocating a greater depth, and spread of the Rights message and brought up the usually unspoken issue of Gay Rights. Both last-named candidates and “outlier” contestants have been accessible to Media and have taken part in informal debates aired on TV.

Chief Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya (r) and Commission Member Ratnajeevan Hoole/File

Looming over the entire election process is the biggest ballot paper the Elections Department has had to deal with because there are 35 candidates in the running. It is twice the size of the average ballot paper and has created a logistical nightmare, making the regular existing ballot boxes redundant. Validating, counting, folding and bundling these votes will be a challenge, delaying the announcement of the final result may be as late as Monday evening according to some estimates.

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In case none of the candidates gets the magic 50 per cent plus one required to win the presidency, officials will open ballots cast for the other candidates to count the preferential votes, causing further delay.

Last evening, Nov 15, Chief Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya reported that all Presiding Officers at Polling stations had reported to their respective District Officers with their ballot papers. “They have fulfilled expectations,” Deshapriya said in a statement released to Media around 8pm.

The blip, Deshapriya said, was around 65 officials designated to work at the Colombo Royal College centre where Ballot Boxes were being issued, had fallen ill last afternoon Nov 15, due to food poisoning. He said that they were admitted to hospital and are expected to be discharged this evening.

Deshapriya also sought to ease the minds of democracy activists who expressed concerns that the Armed Forces may man roadblocks. Activists had warned that the Forces might set up roadblocks to prevent voters reaching the polling booths. Deshapriya said that the Military would be involved only to assist the Police.  “I can guarantee that the Armed Forces will not play a part in the election process,” he said.

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