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Sri Lanka election: President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s bid to stay uncertain as election starts

Rajapaksa won around 58 percent of the vote in the last election.

By: Reuters | Colombo |
January 8, 2015 11:59:02 am
Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa. (Source: PTI photo) Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa. (Source: PTI photo)

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s bid for a third term hung in the balance as the country’s election began on Thursday, with voters split between the “devil they know” and an upstart who has promised to root out corruption and political decay.

Rajapaksa won around 58 percent of the vote in the last election, surfing a wave of popularity that sprang from the 2009 defeat of Tamil Tiger separatists who had waged a crippling war against the government for 26 years.

Reminding voters of Rajapaksa’s victory, state-controlled TV stations showed clips of Wednesday’s attack in Paris by suspected Islamist militants at the offices of a satirical magazine and then switched to old footage of the Sri Lankan war.

“When we see these images we also remember the history of terrorism in Sri Lanka,” the announcer said. Although his popularity has waned, Rajapaksa called the election two years early, confident that the perennially fractured opposition would fail to find a credible challenger.

But he did not anticipate the emergence of Mithripala Sirisena, who quit as one of Rajapaksa’s ministers and crossed to the other side to become the opposition’s candidate in November, triggering a flood of defections from the government.

“It has been a big shock for the president,” said a Western diplomat in Colombo, recalling Rajapaksa’s campaign-trail plea to voters to back “the devil they know” rather than an “unknown angel”.

Some 15 million people are eligible to vote in the election, which began shortly after dawn. A result is expected to emerge in the early hours of Friday.

With more than 25,000 local and about 70 foreign monitors set to observe the vote, the election commission has said it is confident the poll will be free and fair.

Nevertheless, rumours have been rife in Colombo that force may be used to keep Sirisena voters away, that the result will somehow be distorted or even that the military might be deployed if Rajapaksa looks set to lose.

A local observer group, the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence, said there had been “unparalleled misuse of state resources and media” by Rajapaksa’s party and that police inaction had given free rein to election-related violence in which one person was killed and dozens were injured. There were no reports of violence on Thursday morning.


There have been no reliable opinion polls ahead of the vote, but many believe Sirisena will benefit from a popular yearning for change after a decade under Rajapaksa.

The economy has flourished in recent years, and many voters – especially Sinhalese Buddhists who represent 70 percent of the population – believe that sticking with Rajapaksa will keep living standards on an upward path.

“The known devil is better than the unknown,” said a woman who identified herself only as Tania as she lined up to vote at a temple in a Colombo suburb.

However, many voters complain of high living costs, rampant corruption and an authoritarian style that has concentrated power in the hands of the president’s family.

On foreign policy, Rajapaksa has cold-shouldered neighbouring India. He has also fallen out with Western countries that want an international probe into possible war crimes and criticise his record on human rights, turning instead to China as a strategic and investment partner.

Sirisena, who would lead a potentially fractious coalition of ethnic, religious, Marxist and centre-right parties if he wins, has pledged to abolish the executive presidency that gave Rajapaksa unprecedented power and hold a fresh parliamentary election within 100 days.

He has also promised a crackdown on corruption, which would include investigations into big infrastructure projects such as a $1.5 billion deal with China Communications Construction Co Ltd to build a port city.

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