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In Sri Lanka’s Presidential Election, a Question of Security vs. Rights – The New York Times

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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lankans on Saturday voted for president after a year of political meltdowns and deadly terrorist attacks, in an election that could return the polarizing Rajapaksa family to power.

The two leading candidates are Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a former defense chief known for his hard-edge leadership, and Sajith Premadasa, the son of a former president who was killed during the country’s long civil war.

A decade ago, Mr. Rajapaksa and his brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, then Sri Lanka’s president, were credited with ending that civil war, but at a brutal cost: thousands of civilian deaths and the propagation of a muscular Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism that persists today.

In a country split along ethnic, class and religious lines, divisions have only been intensified by the wave of bombings on Easter Sunday in April by a Muslim militant group claiming loyalty to the Islamic State. Hundreds of people were killed, mostly at churches and hotels, in attacks that shattered a tenuous postwar peace and raising fears of retribution against innocent Muslims.

Shortly afterward, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, 70, announced his intention to run for president, making a vow to restore stability that many voters have responded to in Sri Lanka, a lush island just south of India with a Sinhalese-speaking Buddhist majority and large Christian, Hindu and Muslim minorities.

But Mr. Rajapaksa stands accused of human rights violations during the war he ran against Tamil Tiger rebels. The Rajapaksas’ watch also featured many forced disappearances and violence against journalists.

Some activists and journalists worry that a return of the Rajapaksas would only widen the country’s differences, rather than bringing a scarred nation together.

On Saturday, a group of unidentified gunmen opened fire on buses carrying Muslims to polling stations in northwest Sri Lanka, officials said, though there were no immediate reports of casualties. And on Thursday, a journalist was stabbed by several men who accused him of hurting Mr. Rajapaksa’s campaign after publishing a critical book about the family.

For now, at least, many Sri Lankans struggling to make ends meet are ready to shelve their apprehensions about the Rajapaksas, hoping that the family can revive the economy, which boomed toward the end of their stretch in power.

But if the economy grew, so did the country’s debt, particularly to China, whose influence in Sri Lanka grew powerful under the Rajapaksas.

The issue of China’s rising sway here was a major facet of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s surprising election defeat in 2015. Since then, the country was forced to give up a port complex to China, and its debt crisis has been a serious drag on the economy, along with a collapse in tourism since the bombings.

Saturday’s presidential election, when 16 million eligible voters will choose among 35 candidates, could come down to a vote margin in the thousands. Results should be announced in a few days, and could lead to a runoff.

Mr. Rajapaksa’s leading opponent, Mr. Premadasa, 52, of the United National Front, draws considerable grass-roots support from Sri Lanka’s most impoverished districts. The son of a former president who was killed by the Tamil Tigers in 1993, Mr. Premadasa polls well with minority Tamils and Muslims in the war-torn north and east.

“Premadasa understands the poor man’s struggles,” said H.E. Edirimanne, 27, a voter in the southern town of Hakmana. “We want a leader who is down to earth and leads by example, not one who lives in the lap of luxury.”

But Mr. Rajapaksa could have enough momentum to expand beyond his party’s traditional vote bank: Sinhalese Buddhists who celebrate him for ending the war. Former paramilitary troops supportive of Mr. Rajapaksa have stoked anti-Muslim fears in eastern Sri Lanka, where many Hindu Tamils are upset about Islamic militancy in the country.

To his supporters, Mr. Rajapaksa’s tough approach to quashing terrorism is what makes him an attractive candidate. “We want a fearless decision maker,” said Pradeep Kumara, 56, a fisherman from the southern village of Mirissa.

The Easter bombings and the ailing economy were twinned nails in the coffin of the outgoing government, led by President Maithripala Sirisena. Lawmakers urged him and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to resign, then held a no-confidence vote in Parliament that dented the hopes of either man to run for office this time.

The government began imploding in October last year, when Mr. Sirisena abruptly fired Mr. Wickremesinghe, calling him inept and corrupt. And though the Rajapaksas had been leading the political opposition against him, he then appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa to the position of prime minister. The president and prime minister each hold considerable power in Sri Lanka, and many considered the move a coup.

Chaos followed on the floors of Parliament and in the streets, where demonstrations picked up steam. By the time the power grab was ruled illegal, two protesters had been killed.

Out of the political wreckage, and security fears around the country after the Easter bombings, Gotabaya Rajapaksa emerged as a leading candidate. But he brings controversy with him.

As defense chief during the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war, which stretched from 1983 to 2009, Mr. Rajapaksa was accused of crimes against humanity. Among the accusations was that he directed bombings of civilian hospitals in the final phases of the war. And thousands of Sri Lankans in war-affected regions are still missing after surrendering to the military at the end.

Earlier this year, Mr. Rajapaksa was served with two civil court lawsuits in the United States, where he had a home and held citizenship. One accused him of involvement in the torture and killing of a senior Sri Lankan journalist.

Last week, the journalist’s daughter, Ahimsa Wickrematunge, who filed one of the cases in California, wrote a public letter to voters urging them not to elect Mr. Rajapaksa. “The danger in relying on such a man to keep you safe is that no one can keep you safe from him,” she wrote.

Mr. Rajapaksa claimed to have renounced his American citizenship this summer in order to run for Sri Lanka’s presidency, though his opponents contest that assertion and the issue reached the Supreme Court this week.

Analysts said the Rajapaksas anticipated challenges to their new bid for power.

Constantino Xavier, a foreign policy fellow at Brookings India in New Delhi, said Mahinda Rajapaksa tried to rebuild his brother’s brand over the past couple of years, including mending ties with India and allying with diplomats from China to counter Western pressure to investigate wartime abuses.

Mr. Xavier said a victory for Gotabaya Rajapaksa, despite concerns that he may tightly concentrate executive authority, would indicate “that a majority of the electorate is willing to risk curtailing civil liberties in exchange for a return to political order and economic revival.”

Among the more tantalizing questions in the election is what role Mahinda Rajapaksa would play in Sri Lanka’s government if his brother wins.

In an interview, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s son, Namal Rajapaksa, was coy about his father’s political ambitions, saying there was “absolutely no doubt” that the party would offer him the position of prime minister, but that “maybe he would like to rest.”

Mahinda Rajapaksa has become a public face of his brother’s campaign. During party rallies and press events, he often fields questions intended for Gotabaya. Election posters feature portraits of both men, banking on Mahinda’s pervasive popularity.

In a recent column for The Sunday Times, the journalist Gamini Weerakoon worked through a history of power-sharing families in Sri Lanka. Siblings who tried to kill each other. A nephew who went after his uncles. And the Rajapaksas’ own wartime reign, when Mahinda and Gotabaya rode “roughshod over constitutional provisions.”

Mr. Weerakoon drew on a nursery rhyme to illustrate the likelihood of the brothers joining hands again: “Everywhere that the Little Lamb goes, Mary certainly goes along.”

Dharisha Bastians reported from Colombo, Sri Lanka, and Kai Schultz from New Delhi. Maria Abi-Habib contributed reporting from New Delhi.

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