COLOMBO • The Sri Lankan authorities have deployed some 63,000 police officers to guard nationwide parliamentary elections today, as former leader Mahinda Rajapaksa tries to stage a comeback after losing the presidency eight months ago.
Police Inspector-General N.K. Illangakoon said the officers have fanned out across the country to guard polling booths and counting centres, while paramilitary commandos are on alert in case of trouble.
"We have taken additional measures to ensure that the elections are conducted peacefully and that there are no incidents in the post-election period too," Mr Illangakoon said.
Two party workers were killed and a dozen others wounded when unknown gunmen opened fire at a ruling United National Party (UNP) rally in capital Colombo two weeks ago. Another two people were killed in two separate shooting incidents elsewhere during the month-long campaign.
Despite the deaths, private election monitors said that there had been fewer incidents of violence, compared with previous elections over the past two decades.
Former strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa is seeking a comeback as prime minister after his loss at the presidential election in January to his one-time protege, Mr Maithripala Sirisena. Mr Sirisena had been the secretary-general of Mr Rajapaksa's United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) as well as the health minister before he split to run for the presidency.
Many observers were stunned by Mr Sirisena's victory over Mr Rajapaksa, who had been in power for nearly a decade and oversaw the crushing of the Tamil Tiger separatist rebels in 2009.
Although Mr Rajapaksa is reviled by large sectors of the minority Tamil community, he retains widespread support among ethnic Sinhalese voters and has been drawing massive crowds on the election trail across the island.
"I would have retired if they had been doing a good job," the 69-year-old said in one of his last addresses before today's elections to the 225-seat national Parliament.
"I am forced to return to politics because the government is messing things up."
Although Mr Sirisena is now UPFA leader, his reluctant agreement to Mr Rajapaksa's candidacy highlighted his shaky hold on the party.
Mr Sirisena is thought to prefer outgoing premier Ranil Wickremesinghe's UNP to form the next government, with backing from Tamil and Muslim parties. His recent call on voters to "protect the January 8 silent revolution" was widely interpreted as a call to vote for the UNP.
Mr Sirisena has also vowed to veto any attempt by Mr Rajapaksa to become premier if the UPFA wins the elections.
Opponents said Mr Rajapaksa's main objective is to secure parliamentary immunity against possible future prosecutions. Since his defeat in January, Mr Rajapaksa has seen his wife and two of his brothers accused of corruption. His campaign speeches have been peppered with claims that Mr Sirisena is "selling out" to Tamils and Muslims, who together account for about a quarter of the population.
The Brussels-based International Crisis Group said that the elections had major implications for post- war reconciliation efforts and a strong showing for Mr Rajapaksa would "place obstacles to further progress on much-needed governance reforms and reconciliation".
Some 15 million people are eligible to vote when polls open at 7am (9.30am Singapore time), and results are expected by late Tuesday.