Sri Lanka rivals await presidential election results

Composite image of President Mahinda Rajapaksa (left) and Maithripala Sirisena Image copyright EPA/AP
Image caption The two rivals were close allies before the current election

Sri Lanka's presidential hopefuls are awaiting results from the most closely fought election in recent history.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa has dominated politics for a decade, but faced an unexpected challenge from his health minister Maithripala Sirisena.

Election officials said voter turnout was high and no complaints had been made, and observers said there were relatively few violent incidents.

Mr Rajapaksa is credited by many with ending the civil war in 2009.

Troops routed the Tamil Tigers after more than two decades of fighting.

But rights groups accused both sides in the war of atrocities, allegations the government denies.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Security was high around Sri Lanka, but there were relatively few violent incidents

Both Mr Rajapaksa and Mr Sirisena are Sinhalese, the majority ethnic group in Sri Lanka.

They were allies until November, when Mr Sirisena announced his surprise candidacy.

The former health minister is tipped to gather most of the votes from the minority groups, with whom Mr Rajapaksa is deeply unpopular.

But he will also need a substantial number of votes from the Sinhalese, who have generally backed the long-time president in huge numbers.

Election officials will count ballots through the night, with a definitive result expected at about midday (06:30 GMT).

Image copyright AP
Image caption With the voting over, the parties began in Colombo
Image copyright AFP
Image caption Supporters of both candidates believe they have won

High Tamil turnout

Turnout in many areas was above 70%, roughly in line with previous elections.

In Jaffna and Trincomalee, two of the main Tamil strongholds expected to vote against Mr Rajapaksa, turnout was higher than previous national elections.

The Colombo-based Centre for Monitoring Election Violence said voting had been brisk through the day, with only a few major incidents reported.

Election commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya also said there had been no incidents major enough to disrupt the electoral process.

The build-up to Sri Lankan elections is usually blighted by dozens of deaths, but this year just one election-related death was reported.

There are no reliable opinion polls in Sri Lanka, but correspondents say Mr Rajapaksa's unpopularity with minorities combined with the new challenge in his Sinhala heartland will leave him struggling to find enough votes to win.

Mr Rajapaksa was last elected in 2010 when he defeated his former army chief Sarath Fonseka, who was later jailed on charges of implicating the government in war crimes.

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