8 January 2015

President faces fierce battle in Sri Lanka vote

Sri Lankan Muslim women leave after casting their votes at a polling station during the presidential elections in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Thursday, Jan. 8, 2015. Voters went to the polls Thursday in Sri Lanka, where President Mahinda Rajapaksa faces a fierce political battle after Maithripala Sirisena, a onetime ally, suddenly defected from the ruling party to run against him.
Voters went to the polls Thursday in Sri Lanka, where President Mahinda Rajapaksa faces a fierce political battle after his onetime ally suddenly defected from the ruling party to run against him.
November defection by former Health Minister Maithripala Sirisena turned the race, which Rajapaksa had been widely expected to easily win, into a referendum on the president and the enormous power he wields over the island nation of 21 million.
People waited in long lines to cast their ballots in the capital of Colombo, while in northern Jaffna, the ethnic Tamil heartland where voting has been poor in previous national elections, there was good early turnout.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to Rajapaksa on Wednesday, and urged the government to hold a free and fair election and to ensure vote counting takes place credibly, according to State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki.
Rajapaksa's power grew immensely after he crushed the Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009, ending a 25-year civil war. After his victory in the last election, in 2010, he jailed his opponent and used his overwhelming parliamentary majority to scrap a constitutional two-term limit for the president and give himself the power to appoint judges, top bureaucrats, police officials and military chiefs.
A Sri Lankan man leaves a polling station after casting his vote during the presidential elections in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Thursday, Jan. 8, 2015. Voters went to the polls Thursday in Sri Lanka, where President Mahinda Rajapaksa faces a fierce political battle after Maithripala Sirisena, a onetime ally, suddenly defected from the ruling party to run against him.
He also orchestrated the impeachment of the country's chief justice and replaced her with a trusted adviser.
While Rajapaksa's campaign has centered around his military victory and his work rebuilding the country's infrastructure and economy, Sirisena's focuses on reining in the president's expanding powers. He accuses Rajapaksa of corruption, a charge the president denies.
Ranjith Abeysinghe, a taxi driver in Gampaha town north of Colombo, said the country needs a government for the poor and the incumbent administration has not been able to disprove corruption allegations.
"It is true big projects came but the poor struggle even to build a home," he said. "We need a change, we need a government that thinks about the poor."
Janaka Pradeep, from the same town, said leaders in the opposition alliance had different views and personal agendas and they would only lead the country to chaos.
In this Friday, Nov. 21, 2014 file photo, Sri Lankan Health Minister Maithripala Sirisena, center, acknowledges the gathering as he arrives for a press briefing in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa faces a fierce political battle after the onetime close ally suddenly defected from the ruling party to run against him in Thursday's presidential election. While Rajapaksa's campaign centers around his military victory and his work rebuilding the country's infrastructure and economy, Sirisena's focuses on reining in the president's expanding powers. He also accuses Rajapaksa of corruption, a charge the president denies.
"The president did what he promised by winning the war — he has shown results," he said.
Rajapaksa's power, wealth and political machinery give him large advantages in the election, but the outcome is still hard to predict as reliable polling data is scarce.
Sirisena has gathered the support of about two dozen former pro-government lawmakers and political parties representing minority groups and disenchanted Sinhalese voters.
Many incidents of violence were reported during a monthlong campaign period, including shooting injuries, assaults and damage to property, and some voters expressed the hope the day would pass without incident.
New York-based Human Rights Watch urged the government to ensure security of the voters, elections officials and monitors, and that the media is not misused.
In this Wednesday, Dec. 24, 2014 photo, a supporter holds a poster of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa and attends an election campaign rally in the rain in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Rajapaksa faces a fierce political battle after a onetime close ally, former Health Minister Maithripala Sirisena, suddenly defected from the ruling party to run against him in Thursday's presidential election. While Rajapaksa's campaign centers around his military victory and his work rebuilding the country's infrastructure and economy, Sirisena's focuses on reining in the president's expanding powers. He also accuses Rajapaksa of corruption, a charge the president denies.
"Sri Lanka has a long history of attackers getting away with election-related violence, and a few arrests on the eve of election day, while a positive step, do not address these longstanding concerns," a statement quoted the group's Asia director Brad Adams as saying.
"I am sure the election will be concluded peacefully and positively," said Gamini Mathew as he cast his vote at a polling center in Colombo, while Shabna Farook, 29, urged the public to "exercise their right to ensure democracy and sovereignty."  
(AP)

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