Published: Sat, November 16, 2019
Global News | By Blake Casey

Sri Lankans cast votes to pick new president

Sri Lankans cast votes to pick new president

Polling has closed in Sri Lanka's presidential election that has seen rising religious tensions and a slowing economy take centre-stage for voters, officials say, with results expected to be released on Sunday.

Tamils and Muslims, a minority in Sri Lanka are seen as crucial voters to deciding a victor in a close contest between the two front runners - housing minister Sajith Premadasa and the opposition's Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Dubbed the "Terminator" by his own family, "Gota" is promising an infrastructure blitz and better security in the wake of the Islamist attacks in April that killed 269 people.

The Colombo-based Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) reported a total of 196 election-related violations during polling hours between 7 a.m. -5 p.m. (0130-1130GMT).

About 16 million people were eligible to vote, with the ballot allowing voters to choose up to three candidates in order of preference.

Sri Lanka's minority Tamils and Muslims are seen as crucial to deciding the close contest between Mr Premadasa, 52, and Mr Rajapaksa, 70.

Muslims from the coastal town of Puttalam were travelling to the neighbouring district of Mannar, where they were registered to vote, the police official said.

Rajapaksa's campaign focused on his tenure as defence minister during his brother's terms as president, particularly his leadership at the end of the country's bloody 26-year civil war against Tamil rebels in 2009.

Because of their heavy-handed rule during and after the war, some minorities fear their return. Results are expected as early as Sunday.

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Some 85,000 police were on duty for the election with a record 35 candidates running for president, an office with considerable power similar to the French political system.

Speaking to media after visiting the Elections Commission this evening the Prime Minister said this is the first time a free, fair and peaceful election was held.

A decade of peace following almost 30 years of civil war was shattered by the Easter attacks earlier this year.

Mr Rajapaksa, 71, cast himself as the only candidate capable of protecting Sri Lankans from such attacks.

In the Tamil-dominated northern peninsula of Jaffna, meanwhile, police said they arrested 10 men they suspected of "trying to create trouble", while also complaining that the army had illegally set up roadblocks that could stop people getting to polling stations. Former defense secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who oversaw the military defeat of Tamil separatists 10 years ago, and government minister Sajith Premadasa are locked in a close fight, politicians and analysts say.

Because the Rajapaksas maintained emergency laws after the war ended, curtailing civil liberties, Premadasa and his supporters have warned that Sri Lankans could lose freedoms if the brothers return to power, a line of rhetoric that helped a coalition of political foes led by Sirisena defeat Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2015 elections. European Union election observers are gathering information on incidents related to the Presidential election.

"The future of Sri Lanka, how our rights and security is protected will be decided by who will be selected by the people today", said Sandya Eknaligoda, a human rights activist and wife of journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda, who went missing in 2010, two days before Mahinda Rajapaksa won re-election.

Voters started trickling in early at a polling station guarded by armed police in Dehiwala, a suburb of the capital Colombo. Overall, the voting concluded peacefully, he said.

Sha Nawaz, a 72-year-old retired state employee, said he and his wife cast their ballots for Premadasa.

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