Polls open in Sri Lanka

Polls have opened in Sri Lanka amid tight security in the island’s first parliamentary elections since the end of the long civil war against Tamil Tiger rebels last year.

Thursday’s vote pits the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) of Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Sri Lankan president, against a weakened and fragmented opposition whose defeated presidential candidate was arrested in February.

Rajapaksa himself secured another six year term in the presidential election and is looking to Thursday’s vote to consolidate his political dominance, promising an economic rebirth for Sri Lanka after the war.

“We defeated the conspiracy to divide the country,” Rajapaksa told a final campaign rally on Monday, referring to last year’s victory over the Tamil Tigers.

“Now is the time to make Sri Lanka the wonder of Asia.”

The opposition has accused the UPFA of violating campaign rules and warned that the vote will not be free and fair.

It accuses Rajapaksa of stifling dissent, encouraging cronyism and corruption and trying to establish up a family dynasty, with two of his brothers and a son running for parliament and other relatives occupying top government posts.

On the eve of voting Ranil Wickremesinghe, the former prime minister and leader of the main opposition United National Party (UNP), accused Rajapaksa of using state-owned vehicles and buildings for campaigning and turning the government-run media into a party mouthpiece.

“There was suppression of private media. Journalists were attacked and abducted by those connected to the government,” he said.

“Some feel there is no point in voting because their votes will not make a difference due to rigging… We appeal to the people to go and vote. Please. There is an opportunity to change the government.”

Rajapaksa’s government has denied the charges, saying the opposition is trying curry favour with Western governments it says are trying to undermine Sri Lanka.

But the accusations are unlikely to have any major impact on Sri Lanka’s 14 million eligible voters, with the ruling alliance forecast to win more than half the seats in the 225 member parliament.

The key question therefore will be whether the UPFA can secure the two-thirds majority Rajapaksa has called for in order to amend the constitution – although he has not made clear what amendments he wants to make.

Fragmented opposition

Among those campaigning for a seat in parliament is Sarath Fonseka, the former army chief and the defeated opposition candidate in February’s presidential poll.

He was arrested shortly afterwards and is being held in military custody awaiting court martial, but has continued to campaign from his jail cell for a seat in the capital, Colombo.

Fonseka is accused of planning his political career before he gave up his army post and of breaching regulations in purchasing military hardware.

He has denied the charges, but while he remains a rallying cry for the opposition his arrest has fragmented the opposition, with parties that had backed him in a single coalition now contesting Thursday’s vote separately.

A key issue confronting the new government will be how to reconcile with the minority Tamil community following the end of the civil war.

Rajapaksa has yet to follow though on his promise to discuss a power-sharing deal with the Tamils, more than 200,000 of whom remain displaced by the war.

But Al Jazeera’s correspondent Prerna Suri, reporting from Colombo, said the issue of Tamil reconciliation had been largely absent from the national campaign debate, with any discussion largely limited to the Tamil heartlands in the north and northeast of the country.

For the island’s Tamil voters themselves, the election is an opportunity to choose a new voice for their community.

For three decades, the Tamil Tigers were the dominant voice, killing opponents who questioned them.

Thursday’s election marks the first time that Tamil parties have been able to campaign unhindered.

But despite the end of the war and the Tigers’ defeat, security will be tight for the vote, with 20,000 troops on duty to reinforce police personnel at polling stations around the country.


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