Election monitors and officials said Thursday's presidential election, in which President Mahinda Rajapaksa was being challenged by 18 other candidates, saw a large percentage of eligible voters going to the polls. Election officials said the turnout was thought to have climbed to more than 70 percent in most districts in the first seven hours of voting.
Voting is reported to have proceeded relatively smoothly, with the most serious incident appearing to be a hand grenade going off near a polling station in the northern Jaffna peninsula, the heartland of Sri Lanka's Tamil minority. No casualties were reported. There were also sporadic disruptions in other parts of the island nation but not as much violence as some had feared going into the election.
When he called the election back in November, Rajapaksa, 69, was expected to win easily. However, recent opinion polls showed that the former Health Minister Maithripala Sirisena, 63, who quit the government to run against Rajapaksa, had mounted a credible challenge.
Despite the challenge from his former ally, Rajapaksa expressed confidence that he would prevail.
"We will have a resounding victory. That is very clear," Rajapaksa told reporters after casting his ballot in his southern constituency of Hambantota.
Rajapaksa, who shortly after his last election victory used his party's parliamentary majority to get a constitutional two-term presidential limit lifted, campaigned on his record of having ended a 25-year-long conflict with Tamil Tiger rebels back in 2009. However, his critics say despite bringing peace to the island nation, he failed to bring about reconciliation with the country's biggest minority.
Sirisena, who was relatively unknown before resigning as health minister to run for the country's highest office, campaigned on a platform of reining in the presidential powers that Rajapaksa has expanded. He is also among those to accuse Rajapaksa of corruption, a charge the incumbent denies. One thing he appeared to share with the incumbent, though, was his optimism about the outcome.
"My victory is in sight. There is support for us everywhere. From tomorrow, we will usher in a new political culture," he said, as he cast his ballot in the eastern town of Polunnaruwa.
Official results weren't expected until Friday.
pfd/tj (dpa, AP, AFP)