President Mahinda Rajapaksa won handsomely in the last election, surfing a wave of popularity that sprang from the 2009 defeat of ethnic Tamil separatists who had waged a crippling war against the state for 26 years. Photo: Reuters
President Mahinda Rajapaksa won handsomely in the last election, surfing a wave of popularity that sprang from the 2009 defeat of ethnic Tamil separatists who had waged a crippling war against the state for 26 years. Photo: Reuters

Sri Lanka on edge as voting ends in tight presidential election

Tensions run high amid speculation result may be distorted or that the army may even take control if President Rajapaksa looks set to lose

Colombo: A night of suspense lay ahead for Sri Lanka as voting ended in a presidential election that could hand President Mahinda Rajapaksa a third term or bring to power a rival who has vowed to root out corruption and political decay.

Supporters of Maithripala Sirisena, a former government minister who deserted the president and changed sides to become the opposition’s candidate in November, said figures showing a high voter turnout suggested a popular clamour for change.

“This means there is a strong sense that people need a change," said Rajiva Wijesinhe, one of more than two dozen lawmakers who defected from the ruling party in the run-up to Thursday’s election on the Indian Ocean island.

But it was far from clear who would win and, adding to tension as election officials prepared to count millions of votes, police said hundreds of officers were on standby in the capital, Colombo, in case of trouble.

“We consider the next 6-7 days as the election period. Processions and protests are prohibited during this period," police spokesman Ajith Rohana told reporters. “If anyone resists police action to secure law and order, we may have to use force."

Sri Lanka does not have a history of unrest over disputed elections. But a sitting president has never before been ousted and the prospect of this has fanned speculation the result could be distorted or even that the military might take control if Rajapaksa looks set to lose.

Rajapaksa won handsomely in the last election, surfing a wave of popularity that sprang from the 2009 defeat of ethnic Tamil separatists who had waged a crippling war against the state for 26 years.

Reminding voters of his triumph as polling booths opened, state-controlled television showed clips of Wednesday’s attack in Paris by suspected Islamist militants and then switched seamlessly to old footage of the Sri Lankan war.

“When we see these images we also remember the history of terrorism in Sri Lanka," one announcer said.

Although his popularity has waned, Rajapaksa called the election two years early, confident that the perennially fractured opposition would fail to find a credible challenger.

He did not anticipate the emergence of Sirisena, who dined with the president one night and turned on him the next day.

Election officials said the turnout from an electorate of about 15 million was provisionally 65-80%. Results from districts were scheduled to be announced through the night, but a clear winner may not emerge until early on Friday morning.

Corruption and authoritarian style

The Centre for Monitoring Election Violence, one of several observer groups, said there were two explosions in the Tamil-dominated north during the day and another at the house of a Muslim businessman in the south. No injuries were reported.

It said there were also several incidents of assault, threat and intimidation “allegedly by ruling party politicians and their supporters".

However, an international monitor from the Association of Asian Election Authorities said the vote was smooth and largely peaceful, even in the former war zone in the north.

Sri Lanka’s economy has flourished since the war ended and many voters, especially ethnic Sinhalese Buddhists who represent 70% of the population, believe that sticking with Rajapaksa would keep living standards on an upward path.

But many complain of high living costs, rampant corruption and an authoritarian style that has concentrated power in the hands of the president’s family.

On foreign policy, Rajapaksa has cold-shouldered neighbouring India and fallen out with Western countries, including the US, that want an international investigation of suspected war crimes and criticise his record on human rights, turning instead to China as a strategic and investment partner.

Sirisena would lead a potentially fractious coalition of ethnic, religious, Marxist and centre-right parties if he won. He has pledged to abolish the executive presidency that gave Rajapaksa unprecedented power and hold a fresh parliamentary election within 100 days.

He has also promised a crackdown on corruption, which would include investigations into big infrastructure projects such as a $1.5 billion deal with China Communications Construction Co. Ltd to build a port city. Reuters

David Brunnstrom in Washington contributed to this story.

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