COLOMBO (Reuters) - A quarter of a million election officials fanned out across Sri Lanka Monday on the eve of an historic presidential poll pitting two victors in the island’s 25-year war against each other.
More than 14 million people are registered to cast their ballots Tuesday in the first national poll in the Indian Ocean island country since the government declared victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) separatists in May.
Whoever wins will take the reins of a $40 billion economy still waiting to taste the real fruits of peace, despite some large Indian and Chinese investments into infrastructure and a stock market that was one of 2009’s best performers.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa is facing a surprisingly powerful challenge from General Sarath Fonseka, who as army commander led a relentless campaign to destroy the LTTE while the president fended off international criticism over civilian deaths.
But the two fell out and Fonseka’s surprise entry into the race swiftly eroded what had been Rajapaksa’s seemingly insuperable post-war popularity, spawning a bitter, personal race beset by violence.
The results are expected to be known Wednesday. While there are no reliable opinion polls, many expect a very close fight between Rajapaksa and Fonseka. There are 20 other candidates, but none are seen as serious contenders.
Both Rajapaksa and Fonseka urged their supporters to remain calm ahead of the vote. Already, more than 800 violent incidents and five deaths have been recorded, according to the independent Centre for Monitoring Election Violence.
“I respectfully call upon our people to safeguard democracy and the dignity of the motherland by united, resolute, calm and peaceful behaviour,” Rajapaksa said in a statement.
More than 68,000 police will also be on the streets, and a handful of election monitors from the Commonwealth and some Asian nations.
Fonseka Sunday won last-minute backing from former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who has long since been a rival of Rajapaksa’s. She has some support but is not viewed as widely influential since she left office in 2005.
Monday, Fonseka reiterated opposition charges that the government was planning to rig votes and use the military to cling to power if it loses.
“We have reliable information that the government is trying to remain in power by using military if they lose,” Fonseka told reporters. “These are the indications of a military coup.”
He said about 2,500 troops including two special forces battalions and 15 armoured vehicles had been brought to the capital, Colombo. The government had said soldiers would be used to supplement the large police presence during the polls.
Since the main contenders are expected to split the Sinhalese ethnic majority’s vote base, about 75 percent of the nation’s 21 million people, the remaining minority vote become a crucial factor.
Largest among the minority groups are Tamils, who for the first time since end of the LTTE’s three-decade separatist insurgency can vote as they wish. Neither Rajapaksa or Fonseka has much support from Tamils, given they prosecuted the war.
Fonseka has won some grudging support from the LTTE’s political proxy, the Tamil National Alliance, which joined a motely coalition of diverse opposition parties whose sole aiming in supporting the general is to defeat Rajapaksa.
The president called the vote two years early, hoping to parlay the war victory into a second six-year term.
There is little difference between the Rajapaksa and Fonseka campaign platforms, both of which are heavy on populist subsidies, pledges of pay raises to Sri Lanka’s bloated public sector and promises of rural development.
Fonseka has said he would abolish the executive presidency to restore some kind of balance of power, but few including the political parties behind him expect that to happen.
Editing by Sanjeev Miglani