Colombo: Early results on Wednesday showed Sri Lanka’s incumbent President ahead of his former army chief in their bitter race to win the country’s first postwar election, while government troops surrounded the ex-general’s hotel in a sign of sky-high tensions.
The former allies, President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his challenger Sarath Fonseka, both are considered heroes by the country’s Sinhalese majority for their leading role in defeating the Tamil tigers in their quarter-century fight for an independent Tamil state.
But their presidential election contest has been acrimonious from the start, with the general accusing his former boss of entrenched corruption and the president branding Fonseka a dictator-in-waiting.
Initial results on Wednesday showed Rajapaksa leading with 1,125,297 votes compared to 752,850 for Fonseka. But the race was still up for grabs, with millions of votes not tallied. There are some 14 million registered voters, and the overall turnout during Tuesday’s polling was around 70%.
On Wednesday, troops surrounded the Cinnamon Lake hotel after about 400 people, including alleged army deserters, had gathered inside along with Fonseka, military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said.
“We don’t know what’s their motive and as a protective measure, we have deployed troops around the hotel and people who go in and come out are being checked,” Nanayakkara told The Associated Press. He said that there were no plans to arrest Fonseka.
Jehan Perera, a political analyst in Colombo, called the military’s move “absolutely unprecedented.”
“It reflects the suspicion and the level of mistrust,” Perera said.
Attempts to reach Fonseka at the hotel were not immediately successful.
In an election day surprise, the government announced on Tuesday after the polls closed that it would seek court action to disqualify Fonseka because his name was not on voter registration lists, and the candidate himself was prevented from voting.
However, the country’s electoral commissioner later issued a statement saying that Fonseka’s status on the voter rolls was irrelevant to his candidacy.
No major violence was reported during Tuesday’s polling in an election that was seen as a first step in an attempt at recovery after decades of conflict.
State media interspersed reports of initial returns on Wednesday with songs and programming featuring Rajapaksa, and information minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa told broadcaster Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corp. that the results so far show the President “heading for a historic victory.”
Rights groups have accused Rajapaksa of misusing state resources _ including monopolizing coverage on state TV, to bolster his campaign, while the opposition has expressed fears of vote rigging.
While voting among the Sinhalese majority appeared to be strong, turnout was sparse in some northern Tamil areas, where the most intense fighting drove hundreds of thousands from their homes.
The minority community had been expected to support Fonseka and play a possibly pivotal role in the results.
Rajapaksa campaigned on his war record and his promises to bring development to the nation.
Fonseka promised to trim the powers of the presidency and empower parliament .
Some observers fear that a possible dispute over the results could lead to street protests and violence.