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Sri Lankans cast vote for new president amid stray violence

As many as 12,845 polling stations were set up across the country for 15.9 million voters. Polls opened at 7 am local time and concluded at 5 pm with overall voter turnout at almost 80 per cent, the National Elections Commission said.

Written by Arun Janardhanan | Colombo |
November 17, 2019 2:47:16 am
Sri Lankans cast vote for new president amid stray violence At a polling centre in Sri Lanka on Saturday. (Express)

Sri Lankans cast their vote on Saturday to choose the successor of President Maithripali Sirisena, in a day that saw stray poll-related incidents including an attack on minority voters. Polling booths closed with an overall turnout of about 80 per cent, with southern Sri Lanka recording the most votes, while the northern and eastern provinces that have a significant number of Tamil and minority voters recorded a lower turnout.

As many as 12,845 polling stations were set up across the country for 15.9 million voters. Polls opened at 7 am local time and concluded at 5 pm with overall voter turnout at almost 80 per cent, the National Elections Commission said.

The ruling United National Party (UNP) has fielded its candidate, Sajith Premadasa, against Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the former defence secretary during the war and the younger brother of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The current president, Sirisena, who defeated Rajapaksa in the 2015 election, did not contest this time.

The two frontrunners, Premadasa and Rajapaksa, voted in their respective home districts, Hambantota in the Deep South and near capital Colombo. Sirisena, who is supporting neither, voted in his home district Polonnaruwa. The ballot allows voters to choose their three top candidates in order of preference, which will determine the winner if no candidate secures over half the first place votes.

About 400,000 election officials have been placed on duty and over 60,000 police personnel and over 8,000 Civil Defence Force (CDF) personnel were deployed to maintain law and order. While isolated incidents were reported, predictions of widespread violence were not realised. A senior Sri Lanka Police officer said there were several Army roadblocks at Palali and surrounding areas in the Tamil-populated northern province. While it was alleged that some roadblocks were an attempt to discourage Tamil voters from going to polling booths, the officer said the blocks were removed after the police reported them to the Election Commission.

The firing incident was reported early on Saturday near Anuradhapura against a convoy of buses. An official who monitored the developments said the buses were carrying mostly Muslim voters from Puttalam to Mannar, where they had registered to vote. “Attack was to prevent a large number of Muslims going to polling booths. Unidentified gangs tried to create roadblocks against a convoy of buses arranged by a Muslim politician who supports ruling party candidate Sajith Premadasa. After police forces intervened and removed the blocks, some buses were fired upon from a distance. At least three buses were damaged but no injuries were reported,” the official said.

Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekera said 26 people were arrested for law violations, including clicking photos inside polling stations. The Colombo-based Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) reported 69 incidents till 10 am.

Tamil areas that witnessed unusually busy polling in the 2015 election saw a lower turnout due to factors including a heavy downpour in Jaffna in the afternoon and an indifference to Premadasa and Gotabaya, said sources.

Kusal Perera, a political commentator based in Colombo, said the reduced voter percentage in the north and east are significant. “Unlike in 2015, people in the north and east had no reason to rush to the polling booths this time. While Gotabaya continues to be unpopular among Tamil and Muslim minority voters, Sajith’s UNP has failed to keep promises they made after their 2015 victory,” he said.

With PTI

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