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Sri Lanka: Vote counting begins in presidential election marred by violence

Violent incidents marred Sri Lanka's presidential election; gunmen fired at a bus transporting Muslim voters to the polls. This only magnified national security as a top priority for the 16 million eligible voters.

Vote counting began in Sri Lanka after polls closed on Saturday for 16 million eligible voters looking to choose their new president.

Polls closed at 5 p.m local time (1130 UTC) and results for the island nation's new leader are expected on Sunday at the earliest.

The winning candidate must secure over 50% of the votes before being declared president.

In a country where ethnic divisions are still raw after a decades-long civil war and this year's deadly Easter Sunday bombings, Colombo-based Centre for Monitoring Election Violence reported 69 incidents up until 10 a.m. (04:30 UTC).

This included a report of gunmen shooting at buses transporting Muslim voters in the Anuradhapura district, 180 kilometers north of the capital, Columbo.

Sri Lanka's line up outside a polling station

Sri Lankans line up outside a polling station in a day of voting marred by incidents of violence

Read more: Sri Lanka death penalty reinstatement 'extremely disturbing'

Record number vying for the presidency

A record 32 candidates are vying for the presidency but the clear front-runners are former wartime Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party and current housing minister Sajith Premadasa of the National Democratic Front party.

Watch video 01:34

High turnout in Sri Lanka presidential election

For the first time in Sri Lanka's history, neither the current president nor prime minister put themselves forward for the presidency.

National security was a decisive issue in the election, after the deadly Easter Sunday terror attack which killed over 250 churchgoers and heightened anti-Muslim sentiment.

In addition, following a decades-long civil war and where minorities constitute around 30% of the population, the vote is likely to be divided along ethnic lines — securing the minority vote of Tamils and Muslims is seen as crucial.

Read more: Sri Lanka torture victims call for international war inquiry

Rajapaksa is expected to secure the majority of the Sinhalese vote, who make up 70% of the population.

Many ethnic minority Tamils have offered their support to Premadasa and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the main Tamil political party, came out in support of Premadasa.

Foreign policy was another divisive issue as the nation looks to balance Sri Lanka's ties between India and China.

Rahat Rafe contributed to this report.

kmm/mm (AFP, dpa,Reuters)

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