Poll monitors say voters obstructed in northern Sri Lanka

Updated - November 28, 2021 07:40 am IST

Published - January 08, 2015 03:52 pm IST - COLOMBO

A man stands near a polling station during Presidential elections in Colombo on Thursday. Voters went to the polls on Thursday in Sri Lanka, amid reports that voters have been obstructed in the country's north.

A man stands near a polling station during Presidential elections in Colombo on Thursday. Voters went to the polls on Thursday in Sri Lanka, amid reports that voters have been obstructed in the country's north.

Sri Lankan polls largely peaceful despite incidents: Monitors

Long lines formed in the capital Colombo on Thursday and voter turnout was heavy in Sri Lanka’s Tamil heartland as President Mahinda Rajapaksa faced his toughest electoral challenge in years, with a former ally trying to unseat the leader who crushed a Tamil insurgency and amassed immense power for himself and his family.

Some voters were prevented from casting ballots in the Tamil-dominated north, according to the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence, and there were a handful of incidents of isolated violence, but no injuries were reported. Results were expected to be announced on Friday.

Until just a few weeks ago, Mr. Rajapaksa was widely expected to easily win his third term in office. But that changed suddenly in November, when his former friend and Health Minister, Maithripala Sirisena, defected from the ruling party and turned the election into a referendum on the President and the enormous power he wields over the island nation of 21 million.

Mr. Sirisena gathered the support of other defecting lawmakers and many of the country’s ethnic minorities, making the election a fierce political battle.

Mr. Rajapaksa, though, will be difficult to beat. He controls the state media, has immense financial resources and is still popular among the Sinhala majority, some of whom see him as a saviour for destroying Tamil Tiger rebels and ending a decades-long civil war in 2009.

But polling was notably strong on Thursday in Tamil-dominated areas, where voting had been poor in previous elections. Many Tamils have felt abandoned since the war’s end, when Mr. Rajapaksa largely ignored Tamil demands to heal the wounds of the fighting and years of ethnic divisions. They were expected to vote heavily for Mr. Sirisena.

Both Mr. Sirisena and Mr. Rajapaksa are Sinhalese, who make up about three-quarters of the country. Neither has done much to reach out to Tamils, who account for about 9 per cent of the population, but Mr. Rajapaksa is deeply unpopular in the Tamil community.

The wider world was watching the election in case violence should erupt after the results are announced, especially since Pope Francis is scheduled to arrive in the country on Tuesday.

While Mr. Rajapaksa’s campaign has centred around his victory over the Tamil Tiger rebels and his work rebuilding the country’s infrastructure and economy, Mr. Sirisena’s focuses on reining in the President’s expanding powers. He also accuses Mr. Rajapaksa of corruption, a charge the President denies.

The economy has grown quickly in recent years, fed by enormous construction projects, many built with Chinese investment. But Sri Lanka still has a large underclass, many of whom are increasingly frustrated at being left out.

“It is true big projects came but the poor struggle even to build a home,” said Ranjith Abeysinghe, a taxi driver in the town of Gampaha, north of Colombo. “We need a change, we need a government that thinks about the poor.”

Others disagreed.

“The President did what he promised by winning the war he has shown results,” said Janaka Pradeep, who is from the same town. “The opposition will only lead the country to chaos.”

The Centre for Monitoring Election Violence said it had complained to the Election Commissioner that bus drivers in the northern Mannar district had stopped transporting voters to balloting stations on the instructions of a ruling party politician. The centre also said Mr. Rajapaksa campaigners had sent text messages to Tamil voters urging them to boycott the election.

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