09 января 2015 11:34

Sri Lanka votes in tightest election in decades


 Sri Lankans turned out in large numbers Thursday, shrugging off some reports of intimidation to vote in the island's tightest election in decades as President Mahinda Rajapakse battles for survival, AFP reports.

 Sri Lankans turned out in large numbers Thursday, shrugging off some reports of intimidation to vote in the island's tightest election in decades as President Mahinda Rajapakse battles for survival, AFP reports.

Turnout was higher than expected in Tamil-dominated areas of the north and east, which have boycotted national elections in the past and where resentment against Rajapakse runs high.

Sri Lanka's strongman leader seemed assured of victory when he called snap polls in November seeking an unprecedented third term, five years after crushing a violent separatist rebellion that had traumatised the country for decades.

But he has been dogged in recent years by accusations of increasing authoritarianism and corruption -- and a failure to bring about national reconciliation.

His health minister Maithripala Sirisena's shock decision to defect from the government and stand against the president led to a bitterly fought campaign for the election, which analysts say is too close to call.

Early indications suggested national turnout could be as high as the near 75 percent reported in 2010.

Rajapakse said he was confident of a "resounding victory" and promised a peaceful post-election period as he cast his ballot.

The president has come under international pressure after opposition reports that troops were being deployed to intimidate voters, with top US diplomat John Kerry this week urging him to ensure the election was peaceful and credible.

A planned papal visit has added to the pressure, with some Catholic leaders saying the pope should cancel in the event of unrest.

Election commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya said he was satisfied the military had not tried to prevent people from voting, although he described the death of one opposition party worker in a drive-by shooting at a campaign rally as regrettable.

"I have not received any complaints during or after the voting," he told reporters.

"There have been no major incidents to disrupt the electoral process."

    Tamil kingmakers 

 Tamil leaders said two explosions in the northern Jaffna peninsula were an attempt to deter voters, but there were no casualties and voting continued.

Tamil translator S. Sebanayagam said he had to wait in line to cast his vote in Jaffna.

"There were lots of people ahead of me, including some very elderly people who seemed keen to vote," he told AFP.

Tamils are Sri Lanka's largest minority, accounting for 13 percent of the population, and could decide the election if the majority Sinhalese vote is split between Rajapakse and his main opponent.

Sirisena was a relative unknown until he became the main opposition candidate, but his decision to run triggered a slew of defections and become a rallying point for disaffection with Rajapakse and his powerful family.

"My victory is in sight. There is support for us everywhere," said Sirisena as he cast his vote, promising a "new political culture".

Rajapakse had appeared politically invincible after his forces crushed the Tamil Tigers in 2009 and brought peace to the island.

South Asia's longest-serving leader won a landslide election victory in 2010, but critics say he has failed to bring about reconciliation in the years that followed.

The 69-year-old president removed the two-term limit and gave himself more powers soon after winning his second term.

He is accused of undermining the independence of the judiciary and has packed the government with relatives, sparking resentment even within his own party.

Opposition groups including the main Tamil party have rallied behind Sirisena, a 63-year-old former farmer who, like Rajapakse, is from the majority Sinhalese community.

    Hefty Chinese investment 

 Sri Lanka's economy has grown by an annual average of over seven percent since the war ended, partly thanks to hefty investment from China.

But the opposition says Chinese contractors have employed few local people and household incomes have not kept pace with national growth rates.

The president has taken drastic measures to shore up support, slashing fuel prices, cutting water and electricity tariffs and giving subsidised motorcycles and hefty pay increases to 1.6 million public servants.

Rajapakse has also promised a judicial inquiry into allegations troops killed 40,000 Tamil civilians at the end of the civil war, although he still refuses to cooperate with a UN-mandated investigation.

The independent Centre for Monitoring Election Violence said it had documented 420 incidences of violence during the campaign, with the north worst hit.

Results are expected on Friday after overnight counting of the votes.

"We are encouraged by initial reports indicating high turnout," said US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

"We urge... Sri Lanka to ensure that vote counting is carried out credibly and transparently and that any allegation of fraud or violence is credibly investigated."

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