Suspense lay ahead for Sri Lanka as voting ended on Thursday in a bitterly-fought presidential election that could hand president Mahinda Rajapaksa a third term or bring to power a former ally who defected to run against him.
Supporters of Mithripala Sirisena, a former health minister who crossed sides to become the opposition's candidate in November, said figures showing a high voter turnout suggested a popular clamour for change.
A Sri Lankan election commission worker carries a ballot box on the eve of presidential elections in Colombo. (AFP Photo)
Officials said the turnout was unusually high in the Tamil heartland of Jaffna peninsula, which have boycotted elections in the past. Voting closed without any major incidents in areas dominated by Sinhalese Buddhists, who constitute 70% of the island nation’s electorate.
They estimated participation reached more than 70% in most places in what is being projected as a tight contest between 19 presidential candidates, including Rajapaksa and Sirisena who has vowed to root out corruption.
India has special interest in the poll because Rajapaksa had gravitated towards Beijing as a strategic and investment partner — attracting big Chinese funding such as a $1.5 billion deal with China Communications Construction Co Ltd to build a port city.
The world was watching the election in case violence should erupt after the results are announced, mostly likely on Friday, especially since Pope Francis is scheduled to arrive in the country on Tuesday.
There were no reliable opinion polls ahead of the vote, but many believe Sirisena will benefit from a popular yearning for change after a decade under Rajapaksa who won handsomely in the last election, surfing a wave of popularity that sprang from the 2009 defeat of the LTTE which had waged a crippling secessionist war against the government for almost 30 years.
Rajapaksa had called the election two years ahead of schedule, hoping to win a record third six-year term before the defeat of the Tamil Tigers fades in the memory of the people.
Sirisena sprang a surprise though, galvanising a dispirited opposition that had not been looking forward to the election. But he would lead a potentially fractious coalition of ethnic, religious, Marxist and centre-right parties if he wins.
Rajapaksa has been grappling with deep divisions between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority groups. The biggest Tamil political grouping has endorsed Sirisena, underscoring community’s anger over the continuing heavy presence of the army in the north and a lack of local political autonomy.
The opposition accuses Rajapaksa of nepotism, misrule, corruption and authoritarianism.
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.
A police source said orders had been given for 800 officers to be deployed overnight outside Rajapaksa’s official residence in Colombo. The source, who gave no reason for the tighter security, said the deployment would include 250 elite force personnel.
Video:Lanka votes to choose a new leader