By Agence France-Presse
Gunmen fired at buses carrying minority Muslim voters on Saturday as Sri Lankans elected a new president, with the powerful Rajapaksa clan eyeing a comeback seven months after Islamist extremists carried out deadly bombings on the island.
Minority Tamils and Muslims are seen as crucial in the close election, and the attack in the northwest of the island — in which no one was injured — was likely aimed at deterring people from voting.
The assailants set fire to tires on the road and set up makeshift roadblocks before shooting at and pelting with stones two vehicles in the convoy of more than 100 buses, police said. After casting ballots there were given an armed escort back home.
In the Tamil-dominated northern peninsula of Jaffna, meanwhile, police said they arrested 10 men they suspected of “trying to create trouble”, while also complaining that the army had illegally set up roadblocks that could stop people getting to polling stations.
Such tactics are nothing new in Sri Lanka, which emerged from a horrific civil war only a decade ago. At the 2015 election, there was a series of explosions in the north.
Supporters from rival parties meanwhile clashed in a tea plantation area 90 kilometers (55 miles) east of the capital Colombo, with two people taken to hospital with knife wounds, the election commission said.
– Terminator vs Padman –
Some 85,000 police were on duty for the election with a record 35 candidates running for president, an office with considerable power similar to the French political system, with close to 16 million eligible voters.
Results could come as early as midday (0630 GMT) on Sunday if there is a clear winner.
Nationwide preliminary figures for voter turnout appeared to be similar to 2015 when it was 81.5 percent. Voting ended at 5:00 pm (1130 GMT).
One of the two frontrunners is grey-haired retired army lieutenant colonel Gotabaya Rajapaksa, 70, younger brother to the charismatic but controversial Mahinda Rajapaksa, president from 2005-15.
Dubbed the “Terminator” by his own family, “Gota” is promising an infrastructure blitz and better security in the wake of the Islamist attacks in April that killed 269 people.
“Gotabaya will protect our country,” construction worker Wasantha Samarajjeew, 51, said as he cast his ballot in Colombo.
His main rival is Sajith Premadasa, 52, from the governing liberal United National Party (UNP), son of assassinated ex-president Ranasinghe Premadasa.
He is also pushing development and security as well as free sanitary pads for poor women, earning him the nickname “Padman” after a famous Bollywood movie.
The Rajapaksas are adored by Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority for defeating Tamil Tiger separatists and ending a 37-year civil war in 2009.
They are detested and feared by many Tamils, who make up 15 percent of the population. The conflict ended with some 40,000 Tamil civilians allegedly killed by the army.
During Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency, Gotabaya was defense secretary and effectively ran the security forces, even allegedly overseeing “death squads” that bumped off political rivals, journalists and others.
He denies the allegations.
What also concerns Western countries, as well as India, is that strategically located Sri Lanka moved closer to China under Mahinda Rajapaksa, even allowing two Chinese submarines to dock in Colombo in 2014.
Under its Belt and Road Initiative spanning Asia and beyond, China loaned and granted Sri Lanka billions of dollars for infrastructure projects, many of which turned into white elephants and mired in corruption allegations.
Mahinda says credit was unavailable elsewhere.
Western capitals “should give a fair chance to us”, Basil Rajapaksa, another brother, told reporters. “They can’t be monitors of this country. They must be partners.”