Sri Lanka's uneasy coalition faces local vote test

Sri Lankans queue up to cast their vote in the country's election at a polling station in Colombo, on Feb 10, 2018.
Sri Lankans queue up to cast their vote in the country's election at a polling station in Colombo, on Feb 10, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

COLOMBO (AFP) - Polling was under way in Sri Lanka on Saturday (Feb 10) to elect local councils in what is seen as a crucial mid-term test for the uneasy coalition of President Maithripala Sirisena.

The election heightened tensions between President Sirisena and his senior coalition partner, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, as they campaigned separately for their respective parties amid a growing rift between the two men.

The vote, the first to be conducted by the newly-established independent Election Commission, was the most peaceful in decades, private monitors said, adding there were no campaign-related deaths.

"The gravity and the scale of incidents reported so far is nothing compared to what we have seen in recent decades," the Campaign for Free and fair elections chief Keerthi Tennakoon said.

"Police have also enforced the law without taking sides to make this the most peaceful election in decades."

Police said nearly 900 minor incidents were reported during a two-month campaign period and 65 candidates were arrested for violating election laws.

Sirisena was backed by Wickremesinghe's United National Party (UNP) in January 2015 to topple the government of strongman president Mahinda Rajapakse.

But since then their alliance has fractured, with Sirisena publicly accusing the UNP of being more corrupt than the ousted Rajapakse regime.

The UNP has in turn accused Sirisena of backstabbing and indicated it may go it alone in the next general election in 2020.

The UNP is expected to claim the lead in Saturday's poll for 340 local government bodies while the parties led by Sirisena and Rajapakse are expected to battle it out for the number two position.

Over 8,300 members are due to be elected under a complex hybrid voting system that combines first-past-the-post and proportional representation systems with a requirement that 25 per cent of those elected should be female.