AsiaSouthern AsiaSri Lanka

Millions vote as Sri Lanka’s presidential battle ends

Colombo, Jan 8 More than 11 million people voted across Sri Lanka Thursday in a close presidential race between incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa, in power since 2005, and joint opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena.

Officials said more than 80 percent of the 14.5 million electorate exercised their franchise in what could turn out to be one of the tightest contests in the island nation, the media reported.

Men and women voters formed long queues at most polling centres in the island nation including the Tamil-majority north and the multi-racial east where the now vanquished Tamil Tigers once held sway.

“It was a peaceful election,” one official told the media.

Barring a grenade attack in the northern Tamil town of Point Pedro that wounded none, the balloting across Sri Lanka was largely peaceful.

Rajapaksa is fighting for an unprecedented third term. His former health minister Sirisena has been fielded by the New Democratic Front, a grouping of virtually all opposition parties.

The results will be known Friday.

Millions turned out in droves to elect a president, Xinhua said. Officials here reported brisk voting in most places right from the time polling started at 7 in the morning.

Voter enthusiasm was high in the northern and eastern provinces, the former conflict zone and where the military crushed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009.

Closer to Colombo, voter turnout hit 50 percent within hours.

The Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) reported brisk voting in the southern parts of the country which is largely populated by the Sinhalese, the majority community to which Rajapaksa and Sirisena belong.

Election monitors and officials reported the grenade attack in Point Pedro in Jaffna peninsula. The explosion spread fear among voters but did not cause any casualties, Xinhua said.

The election monitoring group, Campaign for Free and Fair Election (CaFFE), said the attack took place 800 metres away from a polling booth.

Rajapaksa called the presidential elections with two years yet to go in his second term, anticipating an easy win.

But in November, Sirisena dramatically quit the cabinet and crossed over as the opposition’s presidential candidate, throwing the race wide open.

Sirisena, who heads a broad coalition including the main opposition United National Party, has promised to promote good governance and trim the powers of the executive presidency.

Although Rajapaksa is still popular in many Sinhalese areas, his government has run into trouble over allegations of corruption, abuses of human rights and charges of nepotism.

Sinhalese hardliners supporting him have been accused of attacking Muslims and Christians, turning the minorities against the president.

A former prime minister, Rajapaksa became the president in 2005. Within a year, he and his brother-cum-Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa ordered a war against the entrenched Tamil Tigers.

In May 2009, the LTTE was vanquished, earning Rajapaksa admiration among the majority Sinhalese community. He was re-elected the president in 2010.

On Thursday, about 150 forged ballot papers were reportedly discovered at Mathugama on the outskirts of Colombo, the media said.

CMEV said among the incidents reported to them was one over the pens used to mark the ballot papers.

Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya had said that only pens issued by his department should be used to mark the votes.

The CMEV said that some voters found that pencils were issued at some polling booths and not pens for the voters.

Besides Rajapaksa and Sirisena, 17 others from minor political parties or independents are also in the fray.