Sri Lanka Election Down To The Wire

Sri Lanka's Tamil minority may hold the key in Tuesday's election, held in the aftermath of the decades-long civil war with Tamil rebels. When President Mahinda Rajapaksa called the election, it seemed like a shoo-in for him, but as former army chief Sarath Fonseka joined the fight, the campaign turned bitter.

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Vote counting is under way in Sri Lanka. The Indian Ocean island held its presidential election today. It's the country's first since the defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels last year and the end of a bloody decades-long civil war.

NPR's Philip Reeves has been in the capital, Colombo, sampling the public mood.

PHILIP REEVES: In a battered schoolroom, sitting behind some ancient looking children's desk, a group of election officials processes the final ballots of the day. Since early morning, there's been a steady flow of people. Jeokat David(ph) rushed to get here before this polling station closed, yet speaking on the street outside, he doesn't sound very enthusiastic about electing his next president.

Mr. JEOKAT DAVID: I guess we don't have much of a choice, do we?

REEVES: Though there are 22 candidates, that choice boiled down to two men. One is the incumbent, Mahinda Rajapaksa. As president, Rajapaksa was in charge when Sri Lankan forces finally annihilated the island's Tamil Tiger separatists last May. The other is General Sarath Fonseka. Fonseka was commander of the victorious army. Both belong to Sri Lanka's Sinhalese population.

The unenthusiastic voter, Jeokat David, is a Tamil. Neither candidate appeals much to him. Even so, he was determined to vote.

Mr. DAVID: Well, it's my right. And even a single vote could count at the last moment. Who knows?

REEVES: He chose Fonseka. At the last presidential election in 2005, the Tamil Tigers ordered the island's Tamil minority to boycott the poll. This time around, with a likely split in the Sinhalese vote, the Tamils might just turn out to be kingmakers.

Down on the beach in Colombo, some soldiers wander around, cradling their guns and keeping an eye on the local fishermen. Tens of thousands of police and soldiers were out on the island's streets today, trying to ensure peaceful elections. There were some incidents. Overall, though, there was no major violence.

Nearby, Abaratha Jiata(ph) is hanging out with some friends, enjoying a day off from his job as a civil servant. He's Sinhalese. He's rooting for Rajapaksa, whom he credits with winning the war.

Mr. ABARATHA JIATA: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: With the conflict over, people can now walk Sri Lanka's streets without fear, he explains. Sri Lanka's civil war has left many scars and lots of unresolved issues. Many thousands of civilians were killed. Accusations of war crimes have been leveled against both sides in the conflict. Many Tamils, displaced by the war in the north and east, are still waiting to return home. Many of them feel marginalized and dispossessed. Yet for a lot of Sri Lankans, this election's also about other issues.

(Soundbite of motor vehicle)

REEVES: Preshur Sabernash(ph) is a 21-year-old Tamil business management student. He says it's also about the pocketbook.

Mr. PRESHUR SABERNASH: People expected that after the war, the economy would be grown, and the standard of living would be grown, would become higher, but it doesn't. That didn't happen. And we still face price increase, inflation resulting, and we still live like, we still live in poverty.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Colombo.

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