Sri Lankans headed to the polls early Thursday morning to vote in what has become the country's tightest presidential race in decades. 25,000 local and 70 foreign monitors are on hand to observe the vote, with a campaign that has been marred by increasing violence in recent weeks.
Just on Wednesday, police confirmed that an opposition activist was killed in a drive-by shooting during a political rally.
Incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa (pictured left) had seemed assured of victory until November, when his health minister defected to stand against him. Maithripala Sirisena (pictured right) hadn't made many waves politically before the move, but has received an outpouring of support from those disenchanted with what is seen as Rajapaksa's increasing authoritarianism.
Sirisena has also accused the president of corruption, a charge he vehemently denies.
Despite crticism and very close polls, Rajapaksa was full of confidence as he cast his ballot on Thursday, saying, "We will have a resounding victory. That is very clear. From tomorrow, we will start implementing our manifesto."
Fall of a political giant?
Mahinda Rajapaksa had seemed invincible. Riding the wave of adulation after putting an end to a decades-long civil war with the Tamil Tigers in 2009, he won a landslide victory in 2010 and used his clout to push through a bundle of laws increasing presidential powers. Abolishing term limits and giving himself the power to appoint judges, police officials and military leaders are just two examples of how he expanded his own reach.
The president has also come under fire for the economic situation in Sri Lanka - growth has increased, due in part to hefty investment from China, but incomes haven not increased and Sri Lankans complain that the Chinese firms do not hire many local workers.
Rajapaksa has also been accused of massacring thousands of Tamil civilians towards the end of the civil war. He had promised an investigation into claims that 40,000 were killed, though he still refuses to cooperate with a UN-mandated inquiry. The main Tamil party has thrown its support behind Sirisena, and the minority group, which makes up 13 percent of the country's 15 million people, are known to vote as a bloc.
Sirisena's platform has largely been one of curbing executive overreach, which Rajapaksa has focused on promises to bolstering the Sri Lanka's infrastructure and economy. In drastic attempts to shore up support, Rajapaksa has slashed fuel prices, cut water and energy tariffs and given pay raises to the country's 1.6 million civil servants.
es/bw (AP, AFP)