Colombo (AsiaNews) - Sri Lankan voters will go to the polls tomorrow to pick a new president in what has become the most important and competitive election in the country's history. In fact, opposition parties fear violence and fraud, and Tamil groups have complained about the military's "intimidating" attitude towards their community.
The vote is "crucial" test. Mahinda Rajapaksa, the outgoing president, is seeking a third mandate. His challenger, Maithripala Sirisena, was once his right-hand man. A month ago, he left the ruling coalition, the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA), to become the joint candidate for all opposition parties.
This time, a defeat is a real possibility for Rajapaksa. When he was first elected in 2005, the country was still in the midst of a civil war, with the army fighting Tamil Tigers. On that occasion, his populism won the day.
Taking advantage of the rebels' defeat in 2009, Rajapaksa called early elections and won again in 2010. However, the poll was marred by fraud, excessive army deployment and the arrest of his charismatic challenger, General Sarath Fonseka.
In the current election, Fonseka has expressed his support for Maithripala Sirisena. So have the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), a Buddhist-based party, the Tamil National Alliance, the Muslim Congress and other smaller parties.
Sirisena once served as Health minister in the Rajapaksa government, and is a former UPFA secretary general.
Rajapaksa clearly fears a defeat. This is evinced by his profligacy, increasingly handing out gifts (in goods and cash) and offering soft loans to voters. For critics, this is "bribery by any name."
Furthermore, in the north of the country the government has beefed up (the already strong) the presence of the military, with more than 400 checkpoints. According to Tamil groups, the military's aim is to "discourage" the local population from going to the polls.
At the same time, several Christian associations have issued statements, slamming "all forms of violence and intimidation". They urge the faithful to vote "cautiously and with a sense of responsibility, in accordance with the values of the Gospel."
The National Christian Council in Sri Lanka (NCCSL) reminded Christians that "voting is a duty and right for all citizens, who must exercise it in full possession of their faculties."
The Christian Solidarity Movement (CSM) has called on Christians to vote "for a change to the existing system of executive presidency".
Sri Lanka is a semi-presidential republic. The president is head of state, head of government and commander in chief of the armed forces. This has virtually given Rajapaksa absolute power.