TURNOUT was heavy in Sri Lanka’s Tamil heartland yesterday as president Mahinda Rajapaksa faced his toughest electoral challenge in years, in a vote marred by claims of intimidation and violence.
Long queues formed in the capital, Colombo, as a former ally of Mr Rajapaksa tried to unseat the leader who crushed a brutal Tamil insurgency and amassed immense power for himself and his family.
Some people were prevented from voting in the Tamil-dominated north, according to the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence, and there were a handful of incidents of isolated violence. No injuries were reported.
Until just a few weeks ago Mr Rajapaksa was expected to easily win his third term in office. That changed in November when his former friend and health minister Maithripala Sirisena defected from the ruling party and turned the election into a referendum on Mr Rajapaksa and the enormous power he wields over the Indian Ocean island nation of 21 million people.
Mr Sirisena gathered the support of other defectors and ethnic minorities, making the election a fierce political battle.
Mr Rajapaksa, though, will be difficult to beat. He controls the state media, has immense financial resources and is still popular among the Sinhalese majority, some of whom see him as a saviour for destroying Tamil Tiger rebels and ending a decades-long civil war in 2009.
Polling was notably strong in Tamil-dominated areas, in contrast to previous elections. Many Tamils have felt abandoned since the war’s end, when Mr Rajapaksa largely ignored demands to heal the wounds of the fighting and years of ethnic divisions. Tamils were expected to vote heavily for Mr Sirisena.
Both he and Mr Rajapaksa are ethnic Sinhalese, who make up about three-quarters of the population. Neither has done much to reach out to Tamils, who account for about 9 per cent of the population, but Mr Rajapaksa is deeply unpopular with them.
The wider world was watching the election in case violence should erupt after the results are announced, especially since Pope Francis is scheduled to arrive in Sri Lanka on Tuesday.
While the president’s campaign has centred around his victory over the Tamils and his work rebuilding infrastructure and the economy, Mr Sirisena’s focuses on reining in the president’s expanding powers. He also accuses Mr Rajapaksa of corruption, a charge the president denies.
The economy has grown quickly in recent years, fed by enormous construction projects, many built with Chinese money. But Sri Lanka still has a large underclass increasingly frustrated at being left out.
“It is true big projects came, but the poor struggle even to build a home,” Ranjith Abey-singhe, a taxi driver from a town north of Colombo, said. “We need a change, we need a government that thinks about the poor.”
Others disagreed. “The president did what he promised by winning the war – he has shown results,” Janaka Pradeep, from the same town, said. “The opposition will only lead the country to chaos.”
The Centre for Monitoring Election Violence said it had complained to the election commissioner that bus drivers in the northern Mannar district had stopped taking voters to polling stations on the instructions of a ruling party politician. The centre also said Rajapaksa campaigners had sent text messages to Tamil voters urging them to boycott the election.
Mr Rajapaksa’s power grew after he defeated the Tigers. Following his last election victory in 2010, he jailed his opponent and used his parliamentary majority to scrap a two-term limit for the president and give himself the power to appoint judges and top officials. He also orchestrated the impeachment of the chief justice.
He also installed relatives in top posts. One brother is a minister, another is the speaker of parliament and a third is defence secretary. His older son is a member of parliament and a nephew is a provincial chief minister.