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Voting stays calm in tense Sri Lanka presidential election

BERUWALA, SRI LANKA — Sri Lankans turned out today to elect their next president in the first democratic contest held in a united country after decades of civil war. Results are expected by midday Wednesday in a race that pits an incumbent president against his former Army chief.

In the former rebel-controlled north, bomb attacks and a lack of buses to transport refugees delayed the early polling. The opposition is wary of cheating in far-flung districts, particularly in the northeast where it is counting on Tamil votes. Sarath Fonseka, the retired Army general, has also claimed that the administration may use the Army to cling to power.

In this seaside village in the southwest, men and women formed orderly lines before entering a Catholic school. Inside, they were handed a ballot of 22 names, each with a symbol, to be marked with a pencil and put into a metal box.

Voters divided, but not hostile
Outside the school, voters stopped to talk about their choices, seemingly unaffected by the fierce partisanship of the campaign. Opinions were evenly divided between President Mahinda Rajapaksa and General Fonseka, the frontrunners. But there was no sign of tension in this or other villages along the sun-dazzled southern coastline.

“This president has tackled our problems. He’s the best candidate. He has built roads and put up electric lights,” says Milhan Arif, a gem polisher and a Muslim. He said Fonseka was a military man who might stir violence if he were elected.

Not so, argued Ranjith Gaminie, a furniture maker, who walked over to join the debate. A member of Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority, he voted for Rajapaksa in 2005 but decided to switch sides in protest over the rising cost of food and fuel.

“The cost of living is soaring now. Parents can’t give their children what they want. It feels so hard for us,” he says.

Both candidates have sought to win over Sinhalese voters by trumpeting their role in defeating the Tamil Tigers, whose violent struggle ended in defeat last May. While Tamil and Muslim leaders have swung firmly behind Fonseka, Rajapaksa hopes to attract enough support in the rural south to counter opposition sentiment in cities like Colombo.

On guard against fraud
Fonseka’s backers include the pro-business United National Party. In an interview today at his office, UNP leader and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe conceded that voting had been free and fair in most areas, though he expressed concern over the turnout among Tamils displaced by the final months of fighting.

Tapping his foot, he predicted a slender majority for his candidate. But he said the campaign was on alert for any irregularities in the lead-up to the expected announcement of results Wednesday.

“We told people to mobilize if something underhand is done,” he says.

Bellicose statements by both sides have fueled fears of violence over the results, particularly if the opposition claims fraud. The constitution allows the Election Commission to refer allegations to the Supreme Court, though the commission also has the right to dismiss them if they are deemed baseless.

Sri Lankans will be voting again in the next few months, as parliament’s term ends in April. Fonseka has promised to amend the constitution to reduce the power of the presidency and restore a parliamentary system of government. Previous presidents, including Rajapaksa, made similar pledges but failed to act on them once in office.

Back in Beruwala, Norman Fernando, a dairy farmer, ticked off the reasons why he had voted against the incumbent: rising costs, corruption. The district had gotten new roads, but the surfaces were already cracking – the result, he claimed, of contractors skimping on materials.

As for Rajapaksa’s historic victory over the Tamil Tigers, Mr. Fernando was unimpressed. “He won the war but what’s he done since with all our money?” he asks.

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