In a decisive election that sealed the fate of their country, the Sri Lankan electorate has voted the younger of the two Rajapaksa brothers, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa as the 7th President of Sri Lanka. Riding on a wave of Sinhalese nationalism, Gotabhaya won with 52.25% of the total of over 10 million votes polled.
The Presidential elections of 2019 were held across 22 electoral districts. Almost 80% of the 16 million registered voters came out to vote in deciding the fate of 35 candidates who had run for the high office.
A total of around 4,00,000 election officials, 60,000 police personnel and over 8000 Civil Defence Force (CDF) personnel were deployed to ensure the safe and peaceful conduct of the elections. However, the Colombo based Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) had reported 69 incidents in the early hours of voting including a report of unidentified gunmen attacking a convoy of buses. However, no casualties were reported and the voters were rescued and taken to their respective polling stations, where they have casted their votes.
The elections were being held in the backdrop of a nation still recovering from the aftermath of the Sunday Easter bombings which rocked the cities of Batticaloa, Negombo and Colombo and claimed over 350 lives in April 2019. Sri Lanka’s economy too has been in its worst state of the last 15 years.
Twin predicaments of a multi-billion dollar foreign debt and rapidly dwindling economic growth stare the new President and his regime in the face.Prior to the suicide bombings, tourism was a 5% contributor to the GDP of the island nation. But with the terror attack that hit the country in early 2019, tourism suffered with the withdrawal of foreign investment in government securities and a drop in the tourist footfall. Before the attacks, earnings from the tourism industry were predicted to rise from US$4 billion US$ in 2018 to US$5 billion by the end of 2019.However the revised estimates peg it atUS$3.5 billion. A fall of 12.5% from the previous year’s earnings. International Credit Rating Agency Moody’s too has revised its growth prediction for Sri Lanka to 2.6%
The biggest challenge in sight of the new President is to reconcile a nation still battling with the scars of the bombings. Addressing the nation, after swearing-in at the iconic city of Anuradhapura, President Rajapaksa reiterated his commitment to abide by the Buddhist philosophy which upholds the principles of equality and justice. While providing state sponsorship to safeguard the traditional heritage of the nation, he said he will take measures to protect the rights of the civilians to live in peace and reconciliation .
Speaking about the Foreign Policy objectives of his Government, President Rajapaksa committed to remain neutral in matters of foreign relations and stay out of conflict among the world powers. This also puts to rest the many speculations that have been rising about the Rajapaksa regime siding with China following the suit from the administration of Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Taking to Twitter, Prime Minister of India expressed optimism in Sri Lanka marching ahead on the path of bringing peace, prosperity and security to the region under the new regime. The Modi Government was also steadfast in putting its Neighbourhood First policy into action with the External Affairs Minister Dr Jaishankar becoming the first foreign dignitary to call on the President. In a gesture equally warm and promising, President Rajapaksa has accepted Prime Minister Modi’s invite in choosing India to be the destination of his first Presidential visit overseas.
India and Sri Lanka, have historically enjoyed a very close and cordial relationship with multi-sectoral partnerships. The two neighbour countries enjoy a past of cultural, religious and linguistic interactions with growing commitments on trade and development. The future of India-Sri Lanka relationship is thus expected to be guided by the strong will between the two leaders based on issues of mutual interest and strengthening of the long standing people-to-people connect. Geographic proximity and historical ties between the two nations enthuse India-Sri Lanka relations with unparalleled dynamism.
(The writer is senior research fellow at India Foundation)