Election monitors said Thursday that voters in northern Sri Lanka were prevented from casting their ballots in an election that pits President Mahinda Rajapaksa against an ally who suddenly defected from the ruling party to run against him.
Elsewhere, voting appeared to proceed without any major incidents as people formed long lines in Colombo, and turnout was good in Tamil-dominated areas where voting had been poor in previous elections.
The 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.
The wider world was watching the election in case violence should erupt after the results are announced, mostly likely Friday, especially since Pope Francis is scheduled to arrive in the country on Tuesday.
While Rajapaksa’s campaign has centered around his military victory over the Tamil rebels in 2009 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.
“It is true big projects came but the poor struggle even to build a home,” said Ranjith Abeysinghe, a taxi driver in Gampaha town north of Colombo. “We need a change, we need a government that thinks about the poor.”
Whle Rajapaksa’s power, wealth and political machinery give him large advantages in the election, but outcome is still hard to predict as reliable polling data is scarce.
“The president did what he promised by winning the war — he has shown results,” said Janaka Pradeep, also from Gampaha. The opposition will only lead the country to chaos, he said.
The election monitoring group complained to the elections commissioner that bus drivers in the northern Mannar district had stopped transporting voters to balloting stations after a local ruling party politician named K.A. Baiz had told them not to.
The monitors also said illegal campaigning was carried out for Rajapaksa through boycott calls via text messages to ethnic Tamil voters who are expected to vote overwhelmingly in favor of Sirisena.
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.
He also orchestrated the impeachment of the country’s chief justice and replaced her with a trusted adviser.
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.
“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.