COLOMBO • Sri Lankans packed into polling stations yesterday to choose a new president for the island-nation, which is still struggling to recover from Easter Sunday attacks on hotels and churches that have weighed heavily on its tourism-dependent economy.
Former defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who oversaw the military defeat of Tamil separatists 10 years ago, and Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa are locked in a close fight, politicians and analysts say.
Mr Rajapaksa has vowed to overhaul national security, playing on the fears of the majority Sinhalese Buddhists following the April suicide bombings, claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, that killed more than 250 people.
To his supporters, Mr Rajapaksa's tough approach to quashing terrorism makes him an attractive candidate.
"We want a fearless decision-maker," said Mr Pradeep Kumara, 56, a fisherman from the southern village of Mirissa.
At the other side of the ring, Mr Premadasa has sought to fire up the countryside with promises of free housing, school uniforms for students and sanitary pads for women - touching on a topic rarely discussed in public anywhere in South Asia but which has drawn women to his rallies.
"Premadasa understands the poor man's struggles," said voter H.E. Edirimanne, 27, from the southern town of Hakmana.
"We want a leader who is down to earth and leads by example, not one who lives in the lap of luxury."
Sri Lanka's minority Tamils and Muslims are seen as crucial to deciding the close contest between Mr Premadasa, 52, and Mr Rajapaksa, 70.
The police said yesterday that a group of unidentified men opened fire on buses carrying Muslims to a polling station in Anuradhapura district in central Sri Lanka. There were no injuries but witnesses said that there were tyres burning.
Muslims, who make up nearly 10 per cent of Sri Lanka's 22 million population, say that they have faced hostility ever since the April attacks.
That division has come on top of longstanding grievances from ethnic Tamils, who say that they have yet to get justice stemming from the human rights violations during a 26-year civil war with Tamil rebels that ended in 2009.
About 16 million people were eligible to vote, with the ballot allowing voters to choose up to three candidates in order of preference.
A record 35 candidates were contesting the poll.
Results are expected to start coming in in the early hours local time today, with final results expected by noon.
Sri Lanka has become an important arena of influence between regional heavyweights India and China, which has invested billions of dollars in infrastructure as part of its Belt and Road Initiative.
The issue of China's rising sway here was a major facet of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa's surprising election defeat in 2015.
He is the elder brother of Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Since then, the country was forced to give up a port complex to China, and its debt crisis has been a serious drag on the economy, along with a collapse in tourism since the bombings.
Mr Rajapaksa and Mr Premadasa have said that they will strive for balance in Sri Lanka's ties with China and India.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, DPA, NYTIMES