Polls close in Sri Lanka presidential poll marred by violence

COLOMBO (Reuters) - Polls have closed in Sri Lanka where elections were held on Saturday for a new president of the tourism-dependent island nation still struggling to recover from the Easter Sunday militant attacks which killed more than 250 people.

Slideshow ( 27 images )

A convoy of buses carrying Muslim voters was shot at just before the polls opened in Anuradhapura district in central Sri Lanka, police said. There were no injuries but witnesses said burning tires were used to block roads.

Election commission chief Mahinda Deshapriya said voters from the minority communities were undeterred by the attack and turned out in large numbers at polling stations.

According to the independent Centre for Monitoring Election Violence, at least 196 violations were reported on election day, including at least three assaults and 61 cases of intimidation.

There are 35 candidates standing in the poll, the third since the end of a decades-long civil war in 2009.

The two main rivals are former defence secretary and SLPP candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who oversaw the military defeat of Tamil separatists 10 years ago, and government minister Sajith Premadasa of the ruling UNP. Rajapaksa is the younger brother of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Security fears are high, with minority Tamils and Muslims concerned the election could see Gotabaya Rajapaksa take power and return to the policies of his brother, who could become prime minister.

Muslims, who make up nearly 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s 22 million population, say they have faced hostility ever since the April suicide bomber attacks on three hotels and three churches.

That division has come on top of long-standing grievances of ethnic Tamils, who say they are yet to get justice for human rights violations during a 26-year civil war that ended in 2009.

More than 80 percent of eligible voters turned up at polling stations and the overall turnout is likely to be higher than any previous election, the election office said.

Counting of ballots will carry on through the night and results are expected to be declared by Sunday evening, Mr Deshapriya told reporters.

April’s attacks dented investor confidence. Growth is at its weakest pace in more than 15 years and Sri Lanka’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious society is again under pressure.

Maithripala Sirisena, the outgoing president, is not among the candidates after deciding to stand down following criticism of his handling of the bombings.

Rajapaksa has vowed to overhaul national security, playing on the fears of the majority Sinhalese Buddhists following the attacks.

Premadasa, whose father, Ranasinghe, was assassinated when he was president in 1993, has sought to fire up the countryside with promises of free housing, school uniforms for students and sanitary pads for women - touching on a topic rarely discussed in public anywhere in south Asia but which has drawn women to his rallies.

Both the main rivals have said they will strive for balance in Sri Lanka’s ties with India, the regional heavyweight, and China, which has invested billions of dollars in infrastructure as part of its Belt and Road Initiative.

Writing by Sanjeev Miglani; editing by Mike Harrison