Record number of candidates to contest Sri Lanka's presidential election

By Shihar Aneez and Ranga Sirilal

COLOMBO (Reuters) - A record 35 candidates have filed nominations to take part in Sri Lanka's presidential election on Nov. 16, nearly twice as many as participated in the last poll in 2015, posing a logistical headache for election authorities.

The election is likely to be dominated by security issues after a wave of suicide bombings claimed by Islamic State killed more than 250 people in April, denting the island's critical tourism industry. It is also expected to have far-reaching consequences for Sri Lanka's foreign policy orientation.

"The large number of candidates mean higher costs. We will need ballot sheets twice the length of last time, we may have to import ballot boxes, and we may need more officials for election processes," Mahinda Deshapriya, head of the election commission said after the nomination process closed on Monday.

The number of candidates tops the previous record of 22 candidates who took part in the 2010 election.

Political pundits view Sajith Premadasa, the housing minister in Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's United National Party (UNP), and former wartime defence chief Gotabaya Rajapaksa of the opposition Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), as the two leading contenders.

Sri Lanka's current president, Maithripala Sirisena, has decided not to seek re-election and his party Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) has not officially picked a candidate, or indicated whether it will back any of the 35 declared nominees.

Sirisena in 2015 unseated Rajapaksa's elder brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, following his nearly decade-long rule, during which Sri Lanka forged close ties with China. Sirisena, along with his party's coalition partner the UNP, has sought to neutralise Rajapaksa's pro-China foreign policy.

Aides close to Gotabaya Rajapaksa have said he plans to "restore relations" with Sri Lanka's top lender China if he wins the election.

Rajapaksa's popularity has risen in recent months after it emerged that Sirisena's government failed to act on repeated intelligence warnings from India ahead of the Easter Sunday attacks.

Some Buddhist leaders and also victims of the Easter attacks have since expressed their desire for the Rajapaksa family to return to power, given the hardline stance they adopted towards Tamil Tiger rebels.

Other ethnic minority parties though, have already pledged support to Premadasa, who has vowed to eradicate poverty and improve housing under a slogan of "shelter for all at 2025".

Premadasa, son of former president Ranasinghe Premadasa who was killed by a Tamil Tiger rebel suicide bomber in 1993, also enjoys popularity among the rural poor, strengthening his position against Rajapaksa.

There is only one round in the election but voters can rank candidate preferences. If no candidate wins more than 50% of the vote, the winner among the top two is determined after tallying the preferences of voters who backed all the other candidates.

Nearly 16 million out of Sri Lanka's total population of 21 million will be eligible to vote in the election.

(Writing by Shihar Aneez; Editing by Euan Rocha and Gareth Jones)