COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) – Election monitors said Thursday that voters in northern Sri Lanka were prevented from casting their ballots in an election that pits President Mahinda Rajapaksa against an ally who suddenly defected from the ruling party to run against him.
The Centre for Monitoring Election Violence, based in the capital of Colombo, also said a hand grenade exploded near a voting station in the northern Jaffna peninsula in the Tamil minority heartland, but that no injuries were reported.
Elsewhere, voting appeared to proceed without any major incidents as people formed long lines in Colombo, and turnout was good in Tamil-dominated areas where voting had been poor in previous elections.
The November defection by former Health Minister Maithripala Sirisena turned the race, which Rajapaksa had been widely expected to easily win, into a referendum on the president and the enormous power he wields over the island nation of 21 million.
The wider world was watching the election in case violence should erupt after the results are announced, mostly likely Friday, especially since Pope Francis is scheduled to arrive in the country on Tuesday.
While Rajapaksa’s campaign has cantered around his military victory over the Tamil rebels in 2009 and his work rebuilding the country’s infrastructure and economy, Sirisena’s focuses on reining in the president’s expanding powers. He accuses Rajapaksa of corruption, a charge the president denies.
“It is true big projects came but the poor struggle even to build a home,” said Ranjith Abeysinghe, a taxi driver in Gampaha town north of Colombo.
“We need a change, we need a government that thinks about the poor.”