Fear looms in Sri Lanka’s first post-Easter attack election

Sri Lankan police officers and polling workers prepare to leave for their respective polling stations with materials outside a material distribution center in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Friday, Nov. 15, 2019. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Polls opened in Sri Lanka’s presidential election Saturday after weeks of campaigning that largely focused on national security and religious extremism in the backdrop of the deadly Islamic State-inspired suicide bomb attacks on Easter Sunday.

Nearly 16 million of the island nation’s 22 million people were eligible to vote and choose a new president from a record 35 candidates. President Maithripala Sirisena, who was elected in 2015, is not seeking reelection. Results are expected as early as Sunday.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, 71, a former defense official under his brother, ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa, was widely expected to triumph over 52-year-old ruling party Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa.

But as the election approached, the race became very close.

The Rajapaksa brothers are revered by Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese Buddhist majority for defeating the Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009. Because of their heavy-handed rule during and after the war, some minorities fear their return.

Gotabaya is accused of persecuting critics and overseeing what were called “white van squads” that whisked away journalists, activists and Tamil civilians suspected of links to the Tamil Tigers rebel group. Some were tortured and released, while others simply disappeared. The Rajapaksa brothers are also accused of condoning rape and extrajudicial killings and deliberately targeting civilians and hospitals during the war.

Premadasa, the son of a former president who was assassinated by a Tamil Tiger suicide bombing, has gained support in recent weeks by promising to expand welfare programs and bringing disgruntled party stalwarts into the fold.

Because the Rajapaksas maintained emergency laws after the war ended, curtailing civil liberties, Premadasa and his supporters have warned that Sri Lankans could lose freedoms if the brothers return to power, a line of rhetoric that helped a coalition of political foes led by Sirisena defeat Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2015 elections.

Voters started trickling in early at a polling station guarded by armed police in Dehiwala, a suburb of the capital Colombo.

Sha Nawaz, a 72-year-old retired state employee, said he and his wife cast their ballots for Premadesa.

“The reason is we like him, young and we need a person like that in our country,” Nawaz said.