Sri Lankans vote in parliamentary elections

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lankans faced a clear choice in parliamentary elections Thursday between further strengthening the president's hand in deciding the nation's postwar fate or trying to check his power.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who won a resounding re-election victory three months ago, is seeking a two-thirds parliamentary majority allowing his party to change the constitution. His coalition faces an opposition in disarray, with the candidate he defeated in the presidential polls under detention and facing a court-martial.

The opposition fears Rajapaksa will try to amend the constitution to remain in power past the end of his second term in 2017. It accuses him of stifling dissent, encouraging cronyism and corruption and trying to establish a family dynasty.

Two of Rajapaksa's brothers and a son are running for Parliament.

Independent monitors reported a dismal turnout, between 50 percent to 55 percent of registered voters.

"This is a very low turnout," said Hirantha Iddamalgoda, of the Peoples' Action for Free and Fair elections, a local election monitoring group. "It seems the people have lost enthusiasm in the elections, despite the heavy number of candidates."

Some 70 percent of voters cast their ballots in the last presidential election.

Election official W.P. Sumanasiri said he could not give a turnout percentage after polls closed Thursday. The first results were expected by midnight (1830 GMT).

Rajapaksa remains a hero among the Sinhalese majority for leading last year's victory over the Tamil Tiger rebels, and many voters hope he can bring postwar development and reconciliation to the country after a quarter-century of civil conflict.

"I voted for this government because they are developing the roads. It's enough if we are given a chance to earn a living," said Nishantha Perera, a 37-year-old taxi driver in the majority Sinhalese town of Gampaha.

Opposition official Tissa Attanayake cried foul over the election, accusing the ruling party of illegally using government resources for propaganda and violence and threats against opposition supporters during the campaign.

"We can't consider this as a free and fair election. The malpractice will affect the final result," Attanayake said, adding the party is discussing its next step.

The Center for Monitoring Election Violence, another independent poll monitoring group, reported scattered election irregularities. It said the home of a ruling party supporter in southern Sri Lanka was shot at but no one was wounded.

Buses carrying ethnic Tamils displaced during the civil war were blocked from traveling to polling stations in the north, and police prevented Tamils from voting in the eastern district of Trincomalee, the group said.

The coalition headed by Rajapaksa held 128 seats in the outgoing 225-member Parliament. A key issue confronting the new government will be how to reconcile with the minority Tamil community following the end of the civil war.

"We must remember that terrorism is over, and only a strong Parliament can carry development forward and unite the communities," Rajapaksa told state television after casting his vote in his home village of Medamulana in the south.

The opposition candidates include former army chief Sarath Fonseka, who led the military victory over the rebels, lost the presidential election to Rajapaksa, and is now facing a court-martial on charges he engaged in politics while still in uniform.

Fonseka was running for a seat in the capital Colombo, although he was not registered to vote.

Former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe of the largest opposition party, the United National Front, is facing a leadership challenge and party disunity after a series of election losses.

Businessman Lal Samarathunga, however, said he voted for the United National Front because it's business-friendly.

For Tamils, who make up 18 percent of the population and claim persecution by the majority Sinhalese, the election is an opportunity to choose a new voice for their community, which was dominated by the separatist rebels for three decades.

Rajapaksa has yet to follow through on his promise to discuss a power-sharing deal with the Tamils, more than 200,000 of whom remain displaced by the war.

The Tamil National Alliance, a rebel proxy party that had 22 seats in the outgoing Parliament, has split in three, with one faction siding with the government, another shedding its demand for an independent Tamil state and a third seeking a Sri Lankan confederation with Sinhalese and Tamil states.

Voting was slow in the predominantly Tamil north. Subramanium Ravindran, a displaced resident of the former rebel capital, Kilinochchi, said he hopes a new government will rebuild his hometown devastated by war.

"Kilinochchi is destroyed, people must be resettled. Simultaneously our rights must be restored," he said.


Associated Press writers Bharatha Mallawarachi and Sinnathurai Thillainathan contributed to this report.