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Live: Sri Lanka votes in tightest election in decades

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Sri Lankans began voting on Thursday in a tightly fought presidential election, with incumbent Mahinda Rajapakse seeking a record third term in office amid a flurry of defections and criticism over his authoritarian rule.Polls opened at 7 a.m. (0130 GMT) and will continue for nine hours under tight security, an elections department official said.

Some 1,586,598 of the country’s 21 million population are eligible to vote. About 1,076 polling stations have been set for elections. There are 19 candidates in the fray.

69-year-old Rajapaksa’s decision to call early elections in the hope of an easy victory over a fragmented opposition now appears a tough task with a broad coalition of parties rallying behind his former associate turned rival, Maithripala Sirisena.

Mr. Rajapaksa had called the election two years ahead of schedule, hoping to win a record third six-year term before the defeat of the Tamil Tigers fades in the memory of the people of the island which saw a three decades war over the demand of a separate Tamil Eelam.

The veteran politician was taken by surprise by the candidacy of former Health Minister, Mr. Sirisena, 63, who walked out of the government a day after polls were called.

That set off a wave of political turmoil and energised a long-dispirited opposition that had not been looking forward to the election.

Both the President and his challenger belong to the majority Sinhala Buddhist community and much depends on how the minorities Tamils and Muslims vote in the elections.

President Rajapaksa has been the undisputed leader of the country for nearly a decade. But Sri Lanka is still grappling with divisions between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority groups.

Grievances for Tamils include the continuing heavy presence of the Sri Lankan Army in northern areas and a lack of local political autonomy.

The biggest Tamil political grouping has endorsed Mr. Sirisena’s candidacy. Muslim parties concerned by rising violence from a range of hardline Buddhist groups which have emerged in recent years have also joined the opposition.

The opposition campaign accuses Mr. Rajapaksa of nepotism, misrule, corruption and authoritarianism.

Mr. Rajapaksa’s brothers — Gotabhaya and Basil — are Defence and Economic Ministers respectively besides a number of his family members who are holding key posts and positions.

Mr. Sirisena backed by the main opposition United National Party and another key breakaway group the JHU or the Buddhist Monk party have plans for a series of constitutional and democratic reforms.

Counting of the votes would begin soon the after the voting ends and the first results are expected after midnight on Friday.

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