Sri Lanka's Incumbent President Battles with Former Military Chief

Sri Lanka's incumbent president is battling with his estranged former army chief in the country's first election since the two men led government troops to victory in the quarter-century war against Tamil Tiger rebels.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa and former military chief Sarath Fonseka both are considered heroes by the country's Sinhalese majority and were close partners in the campaign to defeat the rebels. But a bitter falling-out drove Fonseka to the opposition and turned Rajapaksa's expected easy re-election into a tight and bitter race, The Press Association reports.

According to The Financial Times, millions of Sri Lankans went to the polls Tuesday to elect a new president in a vote that will set the course of the nation after the historic end of its 25-year civil war last year.

"Now we have freedom of movement because the president has removed the terrorists," said Milhan Arif, a Muslim gem polisher in Sri Lanka’s south coast community of Beruwala, who voted for the incumbent. "Rajapaksa has built roads and put in street lamps. Earlier it was dark at night here."

The two candidates were close partners in the final stage of the war last year, when they were accused of human rights abuses for shelling the LTTE in spite of the presence of hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians in the war zone.

Both candidates have taken credit for the army's victory over the Tamil insurgents, formally known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a militant group that pioneered the suicide vest in its brutal campaign for a homeland for marginalized Tamils. The ethnic minority is concentrated in the island's north and east.

In an ironic twist, Tamils, who account for about 18% of the island's 21 million people, including an estimated 100,000 civilians still reportedly being held in internment camps, may have an inordinate role in deciding the outcome. With the Sinhalese support split, Tamils could provide the swing votes.

Rajapaksa has banked on the appeal of his patriotism message, especially among rural voters who account for 70% of the population, in a nation where the incumbent has never lost, The Los Angeles Times reports.

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