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Sri Lanka voters cast ballots for new president

Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sarath Fonseka
Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, left, looks on during a meeting in Colombo, Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2009, and presidential candidate of the common opposition and former military chief Gen. Sarath Fonseka looks on, right, in Horagolla, outskirts of Colombo, Sunday, Jan. 24. Eranga Jayawardene / ASSOCIATED PRESS
/ Source: The Associated Press

The two architects of Sri Lanka's civil war victory faced off Tuesday in a hard-fought election to determine who will lead this troubled country's struggle to recover from a devastating quarter-century conflict.

The main candidates, incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his former army chief Sarath Fonseka, were close partners in the campaign to defeat the Tamil Tiger rebels. But a bitter falling out that drove Fonseka to the opposition has turned an expected easy re-election victory for Rajapaksa into a tight political contest between two men considered war heroes by the Sinhalese majority.

Polls opened at 7 a.m. (0130 GMT) and were to close at 4 p.m., with first results not expected until Wednesday.

A grenade attack struck the office of a ruling party organizer in the predominantly ethnic Tamil town of Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka ahead of the polling, but no one was hurt, said Paikiyasothy Saravanamuttu of the independent Center for Monitoring Election Violence.

Calling for an election boycott
Unidentified activists were distributing leaflets in Jaffna calling for an election boycott, he said.

During the last presidential election in 2005, won by Rajapaksa, the Tamil Tiger rebel group enforced a boycott of the polls among ethnic Tamils. However, this year Tamils are expected to vote in significant numbers for the opposition candidate, Fonseka.

Whoever wins control of this island off the southern coast of India will inherit a country still deeply divided by the ethnic conflict and mired in an economic malaise.

"We have freedom now, but we live amid severe economic hardships," said a 38-year-old Samitha Perera, a driver in Colombo. "We find it very difficult to cover our monthly expenses."

Though there have been no reliable polls, both candidates appear to command strong Sinhalese followings, and the Tamil minority — those who suffered most from the government offensive against the rebels — may prove to be kingmakers.

Rajapaksa has campaigned on his war record and his promises to bring development to the nation.

"We defeated terrorism and separatism," Rajapaska said in an e-mail to supporters Monday. "We are now ready to lead our children and our nation to a brighter future."

He branded Fonseka a potential military dictator.

Fonseka, who also pledges an economic renaissance, accused Rajapaksa of entrenched corruption and promised to trim the powers of the presidency and empower parliament if elected.

No detailed plans
Neither man has outlined a detailed plan for resolving the grievances of the marginalized Tamil minority that sparked the conflict in the first place.

Twenty other candidates are also running, but none are expected to attract a major share of the vote.

A diverse array of opposition parties — from ultranationalist Sinhalese Marxists to former Tamil separatists — has coalesced around Fonseka, whom they see as their best chance to unseat Rajapaksa.

Even former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, whose father founded the party that Rajapaksa now leads, endorsed Fonseka, saying he would "effect a change in the political culture that prevails today, one of thuggery, intimidation, corruption, robbery of state assets by those in power and malgovernance in general."

Many opposition politicians fear that a second term would give Rajapaksa and his three brothers — all of whom have senior government posts — untrammeled power.

The political contest has turned violent, with six people killed and scores injured in election-related incidents. Rights groups accused Rajapaksa of misusing government's resources for his campaign. The state media has regularly glorified the president, while barely mentioning Fonseka.

The opposition has accused the government of planning to rig the election or even stage a coup to stay in power.

Two men had worked as allies
Less than a year ago, the two men were allies, working closely together to defeat one of the world's most sophisticated rebel groups and crush its 25 year fight for an independent Tamil homeland. The Tamil Tigers, listed as a terror group by many Western governments, commanded a de facto state in the north with a sophisticated military machine.

The economy has emerged as a major issue in the election, with many people saying they had been willing to sacrifice during the war, but their patience has run out.

"Even after eight months, the government has failed to deliver the dividends of peace," said Gamini Subasinghe, a 35-year-old businessman who supports Fonseka.

Other voters are willing to give Rajapaksa more time, crediting him with giving them a life without bombs on the streets and deaths on the battlefield.

Priyanke Ekanayake, 47, lives near a fuel depot and power station that were attacked by the Tigers on the outskirts of Colombo.

"Because of Rajapaksa we all are now living without any fear, in a country free of terrorism," Ekanayake said.