Sri Lanka votes in tightest election in decades

Sri Lankan election commission workers carrying ballot boxes on the eve of presidential elections in Colombo on Jan 7, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP
Sri Lankan election commission workers carrying ballot boxes on the eve of presidential elections in Colombo on Jan 7, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP

COLOMBO (AFP) - Sri Lanka goes to the polls on Thursday in its tightest election in decades, with its strongman president battling for survival after accusations of corruption and a failure to bring about national reconciliation.

Mr Mahinda Rajapakse appeared assured of victory when he called snap polls in November, seeking an unprecedented third term in office five years after crushing a violent separatist rebellion that had traumatised the country for decades.

But his health minister's shock decision to defect from the government and stand against him led to a bitterly fought campaign for an election that analysts say is too close to call.

Mr Maithripala Sirisena was a relative unknown until he announced he was standing as the main opposition candidate, but has led a slew of defections and become a rallying point for disaffection with Rajapakse and his powerful family.

"Sirisena has become the symbol for those arguing for better governance in this country and anti-corruption," said Mr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives think tank.

"A lot of it is him as a symbol to oust the Rajapakses, who people believe are very dangerous as far as the democratic future of the country is concerned."

Mr Rajapakse is South Asia's longest-serving leader and had appeared politically invincible after his forces crushed the Tamil Tigers in 2009 and brought peace to the island.

He won a landslide election victory in 2010, but critics say he has failed to bring about reconciliation with Sri Lanka's Tamil minority in the years that followed.

His second term has been dogged by accusations of corruption, including undermining the independence of the judiciary and lining the pockets of political cronies through lucrative contracts.

Sri Lanka's economy has grown by an annual average of over seven percent since the war ended, partly thanks to hefty investment from China.

But the opposition says Chinese contractors have employed few local people, and household incomes have not kept pace with national growth rates.

The 69-year-old President, who has been accused of growing authoritarianism, removed the two-term limit on the presidency and given himself more powers soon after winning his second term.

He has packed the government with relatives, sparking resentment even within his own party.

Opposition parties, including the main Tamil party, have rallied behind Mr Sirisena, a 63-year-old farmer-turned-politician who is from the majority Sinhalese community.

The President has taken drastic measures to shore up support, slashing fuel prices, cutting water and electricity tariffs and giving subsidised motorcycles and hefty pay increases to 1.6 million public servants.

Mr Rajapakse has also promised a judicial inquiry into allegations that his troops killed 40,000 Tamil civilians at the end of the civil war, although he still refuses to cooperate with a UN-mandated investigation.

Mr Rajapakse is widely detested by members of the country's biggest minority, who account for 13 per cent of its 15 million people and usually vote as a bloc.

With analysts and media predicting a tight race, election monitors have expressed fears authorities could try to intimidate voters.

The independent Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) said it had documented 420 incidences of violence during the campaign, with the Tamil-dominated north worst hit.

On Wednesday, police said an opposition activist had died after being hit in a drive-by shooting at a rally for Sirisena.

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