By Susitha Fernando Colombo, Nov 16 : Around 80 per cent of eligible Sri Lankans voted on Saturday for the presidential election, the country’s National Election Commission stated. In Tamil-majority Northern Province, the polling percentage was recorded around 70% with 66 per cent voter turnout in Jaffna district. Former war-affected districts Kilinochchi polled 73 per cent, Mullaitivu 76 per cent, Vavuniya 75 and Mannar 71 per cent.
The percentage was a little less than the 2015 Presidential election when average voting percentage was 81.52% out of which incumbent President Maithripala Sirisena won with 51.28 per cent with 6,217,162 votes while Mahinda Rajapaksa garnered 47.58 per cent with 5,768,090 votes. Sirisena won in 12 districts while Rajapaksa won 10 districts.
The outgoing President in his speech to the nation on Saturday evening said the most unfortunate incident that took place during his tenure was the Easter Sunday attack on April 21 this year.
“This ruthless attack could have been prevented, but I don’t want to say anything more than that,” said President Sirisena while expressing his regret to the relatives of a large number of local and foreign nationals who died in the attack carried out at three churches and three hotels by eight local suicide killers connected to ISIS.
The coordinated attacks killed 269 civilians and injured over 400 people. The President placed the responsibility on top police officials and former defence secretary who were arrested and remanded.
The President hinted that the biggest challenge for the new President would be to form a corruption-free cabinet.
Meanwhile, Chairman of the Election Commission Mahinda Deshapriya said the election was generally peaceful though there were 248 incidents of violation of election laws and seven incidents of violence, including the shooting at the busses transporting Muslim voters from Putlam to Mannar on Saturday early hours. Stones were thrown at buses and roads were blocked to prevent more than 200 buses carrying Muslim voters from Putlam to the adjoining district of Mannar.
Election monitors and human rights activists who condemned the attacks complained that the Muslim voters were kept for hours without allowing them to return to their homes in Putlam after they cast their votes in Mannar.
Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) complained to the Election Commission, saying the Muslim voters were obstructed by blocking the roads with felling trees, burning tyres, stone-throwing and gunfire.
“After casting vote, a large number of people were stranded without means of transport, due to Election Commission’s directives for them to remain in Mannar until 4 p.m,” CMEV stated.
Responding to the allegation, Election Commission Chairman Deshapriya said the action was taken to prevent the group of Muslim voters from casting their votes at two places.
On the release of election results, the Chairman said if there was no major hindrance, the final results would probably be released by Sunday 6 p.m.
“The new President might take oath tomorrow evening,” he said.
He criticised the conduct of certain private and state media, saying elections could have been conducted better had certain media acted responsibly. He was also critical of the fact that religion was used to influence elections. The Election Commissioner said there were complaints against religious dignitaries.
Election monitors said incidents of election violations included illegal campaigning, impersonation and voter intimidation.
A record 35 candidates contested for the Presidency, but the main fight is confined to two competitors — Gotabaya Rajapaksam, the younger brother of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and Sajith Premadasa, son of slain President Ranasinghe Premadasa.
Rajapaksa who presented himself as a nationalist and a champion of the Sinhalese Buddhist majority has vowed to ensure strong national security in the wake of the April attacks.
On the other hand, Sajith Premadasa, the son of Ranasinghe Premadasa who served as the President from 1989 until he was assassinated in May 1993 by the LTTE, has pledged to fight for the Muslim and Tamil minorities.
Anura Kumara Dissanayake, the leader of the Marxist party, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) which led to youth insurrection in 1971 and 1987-1988, has emerged as the third popular candidate, followed by former Army Commander Lt. General Mahesh Senanayake, who formed National People”s Party (NPP) after he left the army last August.
If Premadasa wins the election, the incumbent cabinet and government would continue until the next general election to elect lawmakers. But if Gotabaya Rajapaksa is elected and proves majority power in Parliament, there is a possibility of a change of government.