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Sri Lanka's strongmen ready to return in presidential vote

A rally for the ruling party in Colombo. Photo: Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP via Getty Images

The next president of Sri Lanka will be elected on Saturday, and he will take charge of a country still recovering from April terror attacks that left 277 dead.

Driving the news: The front-runner appears to be Gotabaya Rajapaksa, known for crushing the Tamil Tigers a decade ago as defense minister — allegedly committing war crimes in the process. His brother, Mahinda, was president then and would return as prime minister.

  • Many minorities fear the election of a president associated with Buddhist hardliners, particularly at a time of intense animosity toward Muslims in the wake of April’s attacks, Deutsche Welle reports.

Zoom out: The U.S. and China are competing for influence in South Asia, particularly in this "strategically located but heavily indebted Indian Ocean island nation," the FT's Amy Kazmin reports from Colombo.

  • Relations with the West suffered during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s strongman presidency (2005–2015), and he turned to China. He allegedly profited personally from Chinese-funded projects, the FT notes.
  • The current administration repaired relations with the U.S. and India, but it was riven with infighting and was unpopular.

What to watch: The ruling party has nominated Sajith Premadasa, the son of an assassinated former president, the current housing minister and a comparatively fresh face. But the emphasis on security in this election appears to play to the Rajapaksas' strengths.

Go deeper: Sri Lanka's Muslims face persecution in wake of terror attacks