Voters went to the polls Thursday in Sri Lanka, where President Mahinda Rajapaksa faces a fierce political battle after a onetime ally suddenly defected from the ruling party to run against him. 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. People waited in long lines to cast their votes in Colombo, while in northern Jaffna, the ethnic Tamil heartland where voting has been poor in previous national elections, there was good early turnout.
U.S Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to Rajapaksa Wednesday, and urged the government to hold a free and fair election and to ensure vote counting takes place credibly, according to State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki.
Many incidents of violence were reported during a monthlong campaign period, including shooting injuries, assaults and damage to property, and some voters expressed the hope the day would pass without incident.
“I am sure the election will be concluded peacefully and positively,” said Gamini Mathew as he cast his vote at a polling center in Colombo, while Shabna Farook, 29, urged the public to “exercise their right to ensure democracy and sovereignty.”