COLOMBO – Polls closed Saturday evening after a day of voting for Sri Lanka’s next president, an election marred by shots fired at a convoy of Muslims heading to cast their ballots in what some called a coordinated effort to disenfranchise the minority group.
There were no reported injuries in the convoy attack and police were investigating, said Manjula Gajanayake, spokesman for the Colombo-based Centre for Monitoring Election Violence. The center said there were reports elsewhere of minor election law violations, such as supporters influencing voters near polling stations and distributing mock ballots with party symbols.
After polls closed, Elections Commission chairman Mahinda Deshappriya said there were “no serious incidents of violence.”
Campaigning for Sri Lanka’s presidential election was dominated by worries over national security, which was pushed to the forefront after deadly Islamic State-inspired suicide bomb attacks on Easter Sunday that killed 269 people. At the same time, there’s fear among both Tamils and Muslims about a return to power of front-runner Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a hard-line former defense official under his brother, ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The Rajapaksa brothers are revered by Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese Buddhist majority for defeating the Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009 and ending the nation’s long-running civil war. But because of their heavy-handed rule during and after the war, some minorities dread their return.
Rajapaksa had been widely expected to triumph over the ruling party candidate, Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa. But as the election approached, the race became very close.
Nearly 16 million of the 22 million people were eligible to vote and choose a new president from a record 35 candidates. President Maithripala Sirisena, who was elected in 2015, is not seeking reelection. Results are expected as early as Sunday.
Deshappriya estimated turnout at 80%.
A decade of peace following nearly 30 years of civil war was shattered earlier this year when homegrown militants pledging loyalty to the Islamic State group detonated suicide bombs at three churches and three hotels on April 21. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, 71, cast himself as the only candidate capable of protecting Sri Lankans from such attacks.
During the war, he is accused of persecuting critics and overseeing what were called “white van squads” that whisked away journalists, activists and Tamil civilians suspected of links to the Tamil Tigers. Some were tortured and released, while others simply disappeared. The Rajapaksa brothers are also accused of condoning rape and extrajudicial killings and deliberately targeting civilians and hospitals during the war.
The Muslims attacked Saturday were part of a convoy organized by Premadasa’s supporters and was taking them back to vote in the northern district of Mannar. Many Muslims fled the area in 1982, when the Tamil insurgency began to grow, and others were evicted from the north in 1990.
The Elections Commission had encouraged them to register as voters in Mannar but had not arranged enough transportation to bring them from their homes in the northwestern district of Puttalam, Gajanayake said.
As they were heading to vote, they were shot at, pelted with stones and blocked by burning tires hours before polls opened.
“There is a concerted effort to keep the Muslims away from the ballot box,” Ratnajeevan Hoole, a member of the Elections Commission, told The Associated Press.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether any of the attackers had been arrested.
Shreen Saroor, an activist working with displaced Muslims, said the attack made them more determined to vote and they were using public transport and private vehicles to get to the polling stations in Mannar.
“Very happy to say that no one was injured, only the tire of the bus. And these voters, they have traveled there and they have voted without any obstruction,” said Deshappriya, the election commissioner.
Hoole said he had called for the arrest of a former top Tamil rebel commander in the east now in alliance with Rajapaksa for making inflammatory comments against Muslims in the run-up to the election, but his request was not heeded.
The ex-rebel commander, Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan, broke away from the Tamil Tigers in 2004 and worked with the government to defeat the rebel group. His split helped the government end the 26-year war.
Hoole said that in videos posted on social media, Muralitharan — also known as Karuna Amman — had talked about the need to suppress the Muslim vote to undermine Muslims' growing influence in Sri Lankan politics.
At a Buddhist temple serving as a polling station in a suburb of Colombo heavily guarded by police, Rajapaksa arrived to cheering and clapping supporters, some watching from their balconies and rooftops.
He told The Associated Press that he was “very confident” of victory.
“People of Sri Lanka will get a better future under me, under my presidency,” he said.
Premadasa, the son of a former president who was assassinated in a Tamil Tiger suicide bombing, has gained support in recent weeks by promising to expand welfare programs and bringing disgruntled party stalwarts into the fold.
Because the Rajapaksas maintained emergency laws after the war ended, curtailing civil liberties, Premadasa and his supporters have warned that Sri Lankans could lose freedoms if the brothers return to power, a line of rhetoric that helped a coalition of political foes led by Sirisena defeat Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2015 elections.
Voters started trickling in early at a polling station guarded by armed police in Dehiwala, a suburb of the capital Colombo.
Sha Nawaz, a 72-year-old retired state employee, said he and his wife cast their ballots for Premadasa.
“The reason is we like him, young and we need a person like that in our country,” Nawaz said.
Associated Press journalist Shonal Ganguly contributed to this report.