Last November, and nearly two years ahead of schedule, 69-year-old Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa (main picture, left) called early elections in an attempt to seek a fresh six-year mandate amid signs of fading popularity. But any hope for an easy victory has now vanished as the Sri Lankan leader will be contesting the poll with 18 other candidates, including his former health minister Maithripala Sirisena (main picture, right).
The candidacy of Sirisena, who until recently was also the General Secretary of Rajapaksa's own Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP), has split the ruling party as Sirisena has been joined by a number of other senior SLFP members who have assembled a formidable opposition coalition.
Backed by the main opposition United National Party, the 63-year old farmer-turned-politician has won many supporters among disaffected Sri Lankans and vowed to limit the president's executive powers and strengthen parliament and the judiciary.
At the same time, President Rajapaksa, who first came to power in 2005, remains popular among the 74 percent Sinhalese majority in the South Asian nation. He is largely viewed as a skilled politician who has the ability, if not the authority, to marshal the full resources of the state in his favor.
But the 69-year-old, whose administration has been accused of corruption and nepotism, is also under international pressure to probe war crimes allegations and promote reconciliation with the country's Tamil minority following a bloody civil war.
For 25 years, Sri Lankan armed forces fought against militant separatists seeking to create an independent state for the Tamil-speaking minority in the north and the east of the island nation. Only in May 2009 did the central government in Colombo, led by the ethnic Sinhalese majority, manage to recapture the last area controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), putting an end to a civil war that had cost the lives of more than 100,000 people, according to United Nations estimates.
There are a number of challenges in the Tamil-dominated north, ranging from the militarization of the region, an absence of land rights and job opportunities, to demands for a devolution of powers to the province and the reconciliation process.
Alan Keenan, Sri Lanka analyst at the International Crisis Group, reports many Tamils are particularly disturbed by Sirisena's alliance with the Sinhala nationalist Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), which is opposed to any investigation of or accountability for alleged war crimes by the Sri Lankan military and which wants to revoke even the limited devolution of power allowed under Sri Lanka's constitution.
That said, Keenan points out that the Tamils - who make up about 12 percent of the population - have suffered heavily from Sri Lanka's excessive concentration of power and lack of independent checks on executive power, and they would benefit from the democratic reforms the opposition is proposing.
"This is why the main Tamil political grouping, the Tamil National Alliance, eventually decided to endorse Sirisena, despite misgivings from some Tamils," the analyst stressed. Unfortunately, many of the issues most important to Tamils are not on the agenda of either Rajapaksa or the combined opposition, he added.
'Matter of grave concern'
But there are other issues overshadowing the upcoming poll. As Sri Lanka's more than 14.5 million registered voters prepare to select their next leader, there has been an increasing number of reports of harassment and violence during the election campaign. Analysts believe the incidents are designed to scare off voters in opposition and minority areas.
Amnesty International says that in some of the latest incidents on January 5, three opposition activists were shot and wounded by unidentified gunmen in the southern town of Kahawatte, while two prominent civil society activists found severed heads of dogs outside their homes.
David Griffiths, the human rights group's deputy Asia Pacific director, referred to these assaults against campaigners "deeply troubling." He also described reports of a potential organized plan to obstruct voters on Election Day - allegedly orchestrated by the government through the military - as a "matter of grave concern."
"The authorities have a responsibility to ensure that all people in Sri Lanka can exercise their rights to political participation and freedom of expression without facing threats or violence, and that on Election Day they can vote without fear," said Griffiths.
In addition, the independent Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) accused the ruling party of tolerating "flagrant violation of election laws" and said opposition party offices had been targeted, according to news agency AFP.
The CMEV, which is deploying more than 4,000 monitors across the country, said it had documented 420 incidences of violence since the election was announced on November 20. It said the Tamil-dominated northern Jaffna district, scene of a bloody civil war with separatist rebels, was worst hit.
Some 65,000 officers have been deployed to guard polling booths and counting centers during Thursday's presidential election, according to local media reports.
Fear of violence
Fears are growing that President Rajapaksa and his powerful brothers may resist leaving power even if Sirisena receives a majority of the votes. According to Keenan, one possible scenario in the event of a Sirisena victory by a narrow margin would be for Rajapaksa to challenge the count in the courts, which could result in a period of extended uncertainty.
But a legal challenge would likely ultimately be heard by the Supreme Court, which few observers consider an independent body following the installation of a Rajapaksa loyalist as chief justice in 2013, the analyst added.
On the other hand, Keenan believes that should Rajapaksa claim victory through a means that the opposition considers illegal, there are fears that the military, which is under the control of the president and his brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, could be called in to ensure Rajapaksa remains in power. "The tighter the race for the presidency, the more violent it threatens to be," said Keenan.
Analysts fear, however, that should Sirisena win, he may have trouble finding the two-thirds majority in parliament that is needed for constitutional reforms, or winning such a majority through the election of a new parliament.
In the case of a Rajapaksa win, Keenan believes his government would still have to face serious questions at the UN Human Rights Council, and to address the deep concerns over corruption and concentration of power that the current opposition campaign is highlighting.