When Sri Lanka's president decided two months ago to call this week's snap presidential poll, his re-election appeared assured _ until his former army chief joined the race.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa's popularity within the country's Sinhalese majority was sky-high in November after government troops crushed the Tamil Tigers' decades-long insurgency, setting the stage for Tuesday's first peace-time election in decades. However, former army chief Sarath Fonseka, who led the government troops to victory, also is considered a hero among the Sinhalese and his decision later that month to contest the election turned it into a bitter race.
There have been no reliable polls, but the campaign is believed to be close. In an ironic twist, the votes of the Tamil minority _ those who suffered most from the government offensive against the rebels _ may help decide who will lead this embattled island nation as it tries to rebuild after decades of conflict. Both candidates have crisscrossed the country for two months, joining rallies, attacking each other, promising riches and reminding the population of their role in creating the country's newly found peace.
"It has been a very bitter contest in which there has been a lot of attention on the character of each candidate and not enough on their policies," said Jehan Perera, a political analyst and a newspaper columnist in Colombo.
Rajapaksa maintains his former ally Fonseka is a political novice who could eventually lead the country into a military dictatorship because of his long-term military career.
Fonseka accuses Rajapaksa of creating a nepotistic culture of cronyism, corruption and mismanagement that has led to an increase in prices and caused hardship for the people. He promises to prune the powers of the presidency and give more voice to the parliament. They both have heavily courted the Tamils, who make up to 18 percent of Sri Lanka's 20 million people. However, neither candidate has promised to grant the community's long-standing demand for a power-sharing arrangement, one of the root causes of the insurgency that hobbled the country for decades.
The election finds the country's economy in doldrums, with prices going up.
"During the time of war, the government asked people to wait till the war is over to reduce the cost of living," said a 35-year-old businessman, Gamini Subasinghe, who supports Fonseka. "Even after eight months, the government has failed to deliver the dividends of peace."
Other voters are willing to allow the government more time, giving it credit for a life without bombs on the streets and deaths on the battlefield.
Priyanke Ekanayake is a 47-year-old Rajapaksa supporter whose house on the capital's outskirts is near a fuel depot and power station that were attacked by the Tigers.
"Because of Rajapaksa we all are now living without any fear, in a country free of terrorism," Ekanayake said.
The political battle has been vicious. Six people were killed and scores were injured in election-related incidents. Fonseka has accused the government of planning to use violence to deter people from voting and rigging the election in its favor. Rights groups have accused Rajapaksa of using the government's resources in his campaign. State media have regularly glorified the president, while barely mentioning Fonseka. The government has brushed off the accusations as the desperation of a losing candidate.
Rajapaksa and Fonseka are both credited with helping to end the 25-year war during which the Tamil Tiger rebels waged one of world's most sophisticated insurgencies in trying to secure an independent homeland for their marginalized minority.
After the fighting ended, there were hopes that the government could resolve some of the root causes of the insurgency. However, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said neither candidate has proposed reforms to address the marginalization of Tamils and other minorities. Rajapaksa's postwar policies have deepened rather than resolved their grievances, the group said.
"The Tamils are aggrieved that after the war, the president did not use his position as the head of the government to do enough for rebuilding and the reconciliation with the Tamil people," Perera said.
Tamils previously have been urged to stay away from the polls but are expected to participate in this election in significant enough numbers to sway the vote, Perera said.
The main Tamil political party has backed Fonseka. The Tamil National Alliance made its decision after finding Fonseka's positions "more acceptable" in discussions with both candidates about resettlement of war refugees, rehabilitation of war-torn areas and a scaling back of security forces in northern areas, lawmaker Suresh Premachandran said.