COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – A record 35 candidates filed nominations Monday for next month’s Sri Lankan presidential election, but the incumbent has opted not to seek a second term with the entry of popular former defence chief Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is considered the favourite.
Rajapaksa, who served as defence chief under his brother and then-President Mahinda Rajapaksa, is popular for his part in ending Sri Lanka’s long civil war a decade ago.
President Maithripala Sirisena, who likely would have had difficulty beating Gotabaya Rajapaksa, did not pay a mandatory deposit by a Sunday deadline and became ineligible to file a nomination. Rajapaksa represents a breakaway party of Sirisena’s and has the loyalty of a majority from Sirisena’s party.
A record 41 aspirants paid deposits before the deadline, but six of them pulled out of the race. The Election Commission opened a two-hour period for nominations Monday.
The 35 candidates are the most to contest a presidential election in the Indian Ocean island nation. The previous high was 22 candidates in 2010.
Rajapaksa said after filing his nomination that he is confident of winning.
His main rival will be Sajith Premadasa, from the governing coalition. He is a son of former President Ranasinghe Premadasa, who was assassinated in 1993 by the Tamil Tiger rebels. The rebels were eventually defeated in the civil war.
“We are extremely confident that the vast majority of the Sri Lankans of all ethnic backgrounds irrespective of cast and creed will support this monumental, path-breaking program that will make our country prosperous,” Premadasa said. “We shall embark on a democratic political program ensuring that the rights of all citizens are protected.”
Among the candidates are two Buddhist monks, four people from the mostly Buddhist country’s minority Muslim community and two from the Tamil community. There is only one female candidate.
It is likely that the Muslim and Tamil candidates will attract protest votes against the main parties led by majority ethnic Sinhalese.
Tamils are discontent that Sirisena’s government has failed to deliver on promised power sharing arrangements and to provide answers to families whose kin were reported missing in the civil war.
Muslims are unhappy that the government failed to stop the persecution of Muslims after April’s Easter Sunday bombings that killed more than 260 people in three churches and three tourist hotels in Sri Lanka. The attacks were blamed on two local groups inspired by the Islamic State group.