Bangalore: Sri Lanka’s first peacetime presidential election in three decades passed with few reports of violence.
The candidates in Tuesday’s ballot are led by incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa, 64, and his former army chief Sarath Fonseka. Both claim credit for the end last May of the Tamil Tiger insurgency that killed 100,000 people.
The privately owned Daily Mirror newspaper said turnout outside the north and east was around 50% at noon, citing a local election watchdog. In areas where Tamils dominate, it was nearer to 20%, it said on its website. The results are expected early Wednesday.
High expectations: Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa (left) looks on as his son casts his vote at a polling booth near Madamulana, some 178km south of Colombo, on Tuesday. Rafiq Maqbool / AP
In the northern Tamil-dominated area of Jaffna, a hand grenade was lobbed at the home of a member of Rajapaksa’s party, according to the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence. Five people died in pre-poll clashes, it said.
Fonseka’s resignation as army chief in November triggered a hard-fought contest that delayed debate on how to heal the wounds of war.
Generations have lost their lives in 30 years of bloodshed, said Sanjana Hattotuwa, senior researcher at Colombo’s Centre for Policy Alternatives. Both leading candidates have failed to deliver on a blueprint for national reconciliation and human rights, he said.
The winner will be tasked with extending a post-war economic recovery led by a construction spree and higher farm output that helped make Sri Lanka’s stocks Asia’s best-performing last year. The Colombo All-Share index rose 1%.
Almost 47% of Sri Lankans live on less than $2 (Rs92.40) a day, the World Bank said in its latest World Development Report based on purchasing power parity estimates benchmarked to 2005. At least 16% live on less than $1.25 a day, it said. High inflation is a recurring weakness in the economy, and has often exceeded 20% in recent years.
Rajapaksa, who says he will submit proposals for a political solution to the ethnic divide after talks with all parties, has vowed to spend $4 billion, or almost 10% of Sri Lanka’s gross domestic product, building roads, railways and power plants in the war-hit north.
Fonseka, 59, has said he would scrap the executive presidency within six months and adopt a new constitution to protect democracy. The current division of powers has created a tin-pot dictator, the British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) cited him as saying.
“Two former allies are now pitted against each other with each nursing a sense of betrayal,” said Jehan Perera, director of the National Peace Council advocacy group in Colombo. “Neither has been prepared to address offering power to minority Tamils,” he said.
As many as 14.1 million voters were expected to turn out, the Election Commission said.
Rajapaksa called the polls two years early hoping to ride his surging popularity after ending the 26-year war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and killing the group’s chief, Velupillai Prabhakaran, who led the fight for a separate homeland.
Fonseka announced his challenge in November after he was moved to a ceremonial position and accused by the president of plotting a coup.
Sinhalese, who are mostly Buddhist, account for 74% of the population, according to the 2001 census. Tamils make up almost 12% and live mainly in the north and the east.
With the Sinhalese vote split, Tamils could determine the result and are being urged to vote against Rajapaksa, said Mavai Somasundaram Senathirajah, a legislator and secretary of the Tamil National Alliance backing Fonseka.
As president, either man will have to deal with accusations of war crimes that triggered European Union threats to suspend some trade benefits.
A United Nations human rights advocate urged an independent investigation of the alleged execution of Tamil Tigers near the war’s end after determining that a videotape of the killings was authentic.