Sri Lanka president’s fierce battle

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Published: Thursday 8th January 2015 by The News Editor

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Voters went to the polls in Sri Lanka, where President Mahinda Rajapaksa faces a fierce political battle after an ally suddenly defected from the ruling party to run against him.

The November defection by former health minister Maithripala Sirisena turned the race, which Mr Rajapaksa had been widely expected to easily win, into a referendum on the president and the enormous power he wields over the island nation.

People waited in long queues to cast their votes in Colombo, while in northern Jaffna, the ethnic Tamil heartland where voting has been poor in previous national elections, there was good early turnout.

US Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to Mr Rajapaksa yesterday, and urged the government to hold a free and fair election and to ensure vote counting takes place credibly.

Many incidents of violence were reported during a month-long campaign period, including shooting injuries, assaults and damage to property, and some voters expressed the hope the day would pass without incident.

“I am sure the election will be concluded peacefully and positively,” said Gamini Mathew as he cast his vote at a polling centre in Colombo, while Shabna Farook, 29, urged the public to “exercise their right to ensure democracy and sovereignty”.

Mr 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, senior bureaucrats, police officials and military chiefs.

He also orchestrated the impeachment of the country’s chief justice and replaced her with a trusted adviser.

While Mr Rajapaksa’s campaign centred on his military victory and his work rebuilding the country’s infrastructure and economy, Mr Sirisena’s focuses on reining in the president’s expanding powers.

He accuses Mr Rajapaksa of corruption, a charge the president denies.

Mr 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.

Mr Sirisena has gathered the support of about two dozen former pro-government politicians, and parties representing minority groups and disenchanted Sinhalese voters.

Published: Thursday 8th January 2015 by The News Editor

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