Thursday, January 8, 2015 8:07 am
Sri Lanka went to the polls 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.
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 analysts say is too close to call.
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.
Casting his ballot in his southern constituency of Hambantota, Rajapakse said he was confident of re-election.
“We will have a resounding victory. That is very clear,” he said.
With independent monitors warning of voter intimidation, particularly in the Tamil-dominated north of the country, Washington urged Rajapakse to ensure the election was peaceful and credible.
Top US diplomat John Kerry spoke with the president to underscore the government’s responsibility to ensure the polls were “free from violence and intimidation,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
Rajapakse is widely detested by members of the country’s biggest minority, who account for 13 percent of its 15 million people.
South Asia’s longest-serving leader 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.
Sirisena promised a new political culture as he cast his vote in the eastern town of Polonnaruwa.
“My victory is in sight. There is support for us everywhere. From tomorrow, we will usher in a new political culture,” he said.