Next Tuesday, Sri Lankans across the country will queue up to vote in one of the most important elections in their history since independence.
More than 14 million eligible Lankans will choose a President, at least technically, for the next six years. For a country still emerging from the ruins of a protracted ethnic war, the January 26 election is part of the process of gradually returning to a state of normalcy from a state of war that the country was since 1983 and before.
Sri Lanka of course held both Presidential and general elections right through the years of war. Though elections always threw up a Sinhala-majority government, the democratic framework was never allowed to wither.
This time, the campaign has been bitter, acrimonious and personal. The two strongest contenders, incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa and former army chief Sarath Fonseka bestowed complete freedom to their supporters to lunge at each other with full venom. Not only is the polity, even the media is split right through the centre in their support, or opposition, to Rajapaksa and Fonseka.
It is for the first time that a former top military commander is fighting an election, leading to speculation that the votes of the lakhs of military personnel and their families could be a key factor.
If initially only the rhetoric was violent, the last week or so has seen the violence spilling over to the streets. Till Tuesday afternoon, four people had been killed in and 695 cases reported on violence related to the election. The numbers might not be high but what’s worrying analysts are the signs of simmering hostility between the cadres of the two main political coalitions, the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and the United National Front (UNF). Political analysts fear that at the touch of a trigger, the situation could explode into a bloodbath as the day of election approaches.
The situation has become increasingly volatile mainly because the perceived gap between Rajapaksa and Fonseka is narrowing. It was one-sided till Fonseka shed his uniform and picked up the politician’s white dress; the contest now is expected to be keen.