September 18, 2019 / 4:34 PM / 3 months ago

Sri Lanka to hold presidential vote on Nov. 16

COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka will hold a presidential election on Nov. 16, the head of the island nation’s election body told Reuters on Wednesday, as its $87 billion economy struggles to recover from a political crisis and the aftermath of deadly Islamist bombings.

The official notification of the election would be published later on Wednesday, Sri Lanka’s Election Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya said. Nominations for the contest will close by Oct. 7.

Election Commission officials have said there could be a record 18 candidates in this year’s election, while analysts say it is possible that a run-off count will be needed to decide the winner of a tight contest is which no-one is likely to poll more than 50% of first-preference votes.

The main opposition Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, has already nominated his younger brother and wartime defense chief Gotabaya.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s center-right United National Party (UNP) is yet to nominate its candidate, but party sources told Reuters it was likely to be decided between deputy leader Sajith Premadasa and Parliament Speaker Karu Jayasuriya.

Gotabaya, 70, is widely seen as the frontrunner due to his popularity among Sri Lanka’s Sinhala Buddhist majority, many of whom credit him with ending the 26-year civil war in 2009 and believe that Colombo needs a seasoned leader after Easter bombings that killed more than 250 people.

However, Gotabaya faces a legal battle over allegations of misappropriation of state funds when he was defense chief, which he denies, along with questions over the renunciation of his U.S. citizenship.

There is no opinion polling on the popularity of candidates.

The next president will have fewer powers than his predecessors, following a 2015 constitutional amendment that will hand more powers to the prime minister and parliament after the election.

Sluggish economic growth, national security, endemic corruption and deep ethnic and religious divisions in the South Asian nation will be key issues at the upcoming polls, political analysts say.

Economic growth is expected to hit a nearly two-decade low this year, after the Easter attacks on luxury hotels and churches hurt the country’s tourism industry.

A seven-week constitutional crisis in the last quarter of 2018, after President Maithripala Sirisena sacked Wickremesinghe and replaced him with former leader Rajapaksa, also hurt the economy as the political uncertainty slowed investment.

Reporting by Shihar Aneez and Ranga Sirilal; Editing by Euan Rocha and Alex Richardson

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