Sri Lanka edgy as voting ends in tight presidential election

There have been no reliable opinion polls ahead of the vote, but many believe opposition candidate Mithripala Sirisena will quash Rajapaksa's bid for re-election and change the country's course.

Sri Lanka edgy as voting ends in tight presidential election

World Bulletin/News Desk

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

Supporters of Mithripala Sirisena, a former government minister who deserted the president and crossed 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 emerge the winner and, adding to tension as election officials prepared to count millions of votes, a police source said orders had been given for 800 officers to be deployed overnight outside Rajapaksa's official residence in the capital, Colombo.

The source, who gave no reason for the tighter security, said the deployment would include 250 elite force personnel.

Sri Lanka does not have a history of unrest over disputed elections. However, a sitting president has never before been ousted and the prospect of this uncharted territory has fanned speculation that the result would be distorted or even that the military might take control if Rajapaksa looked 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 government 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 at the offices of a satirical weekly newspaper 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. But 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 percent. A result is expected to emerge in the early hours of Friday. 

CORRUPTION AND AN AUTHORITARIAN STYLE

With thousands of monitors observing, the election commission voiced confidence the poll would be free and fair.

However, the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) said there had been two explosions in the ethnic Tamil-dominated north of the country and another targeted at the house of a Muslim businessman in the south. No injuries were reported.

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

The economy has flourished since the war ended and many voters - especially ethnic Sinhalese Buddhists who represent 70 percent of the population - believe that sticking with Rajapaksa would keep living standards on an upward path.

However, 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. He has also fallen out with Western countries 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, who would lead a potentially fractious coalition of ethnic, religious, Marxist and centre-right parties if he wins, 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.

Last Mod: 08 Ocak 2015, 14:29
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