Millions vote in Sri Lanka's presidential battle

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Colombo, Jan 8: Millions voted across Sri Lanka Thursday in a close presidential contest between incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa and opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena.

Men and women voters joined long lines at most polling centres in the island nation, and officials predicted a turnout of over 80 percent from among the 14.5 million voters, media reports said.

Colombo, Jan 8: Millions voted across Sri Lanka Thursday in a close presidential contest between incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa and opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena.

Barring a grenade attack in the northern Tamil town of Point Pedro that wounded none, the election was largely peaceful.

Rajapaksa is fighting for an unprecedented third term. His former health minister Sirisena has been fielded by the New Democratic Front, a grouping of virtually all opposition parties.

The results will be known Friday.

Millions of voters turned out in droves to elect a new president, Xinhua news agency said. Officials here reported brisk voting in most places all over Sri Lanka.

More than 25 percent of balloting took place in the northern town of Kilinochchi, the former stronghold of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that was militarily crushed in May 2009.

Closer to Colombo, voter turnout hit 50 percent within hours after polling centres opened at 7 a.m.

Election monitors and officials reported the grenade attack in Point Pedro in Jaffna peninsula. The explosion spread fear among voters but did not cause any casualties, Xinhua said.

The election monitoring group, Campaign for Free and Fair Election (CaFFE), said the grenade attack took place 800 metres away from a polling booth.

The Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) reported brisk voting in the southern parts of the country which is largely populated by the Sinhalese, the majority community to which the two main candidates belong.

In the mainly Tamil north, where the military maintains huge camps, the voter turnout was relatively low.

Rajapaksa called the presidential elections with two years yet to go in his second term. Most analysts then thought that he would win easily.

But in November, Sirisena quit the cabinet and crossed over as the opposition's presidential candidate, throwing the race wide open.

Sirisena, who heads a broad coalition including the main opposition United National Party, has promised to promote good governance and trim the powers of the executive presidency.

Although Rajapaksa is still popular in many Sinhalese areas, his government has run into trouble over corruption, human rights issues and charges of nepotism.

Sinhalese hardliners supporting him have also been accused of carrying out attacks on Muslims and Christians, turning the minorities against the president.

On Thursday, about 150 forged ballot papers were reportedly discovered at Mathugama on the outskirts of Colombo, the media said.

CMEV said among the incidents reported to them was one over the pens used to mark the ballot papers.

Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya had said that only pens issued by his department should be used to mark the votes.

The CMEV said that some voters found that pencils were issued at some polling booths and not pens for the voters.

Besides Rajapaksa and Sirisena, 17 others from minor political parties or independents are also in the fray.

IANS

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