Ex-strongman Rajapakse plots comeback as Sri Lanka votes

Amal Jayasinghe, with Peter Hutchison in Hambantota
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Former Sri Lankan president and parliamentary candidate Mahinda Rajapakse arrives with his family to cast his vote at a polling station in his native town of Tangalla on August 17, 2015

A bullish Mahinda Rajapakse said he was confident of staging a shock return to power as Sri Lanka's prime minister after elections Monday, held just months after he was toppled as president.

The election commissioner said the vote, called a year ahead of schedule by President Maithripala Sirisena who ousted the veteran leader in January, had been one of the most peaceful in Sri Lanka's history.

Results are not expected until early Tuesday, but analysts predict that no single party will win a majority and that Rajapakse's hardline nationalism will undermine his quest for coalition partners.

Since his surprise victory over his former mentor, Sirisena has struggled to impose his authority over his United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and was powerless to prevent Rajapakse from standing as one of its candidates.

He has threatened to invoke his executive powers to prevent his combative predecessor from becoming prime minister, but Rajapakse is hoping a strong showing will force Sirisena to back down.

"We will win and that is certain," Rajapakse said shortly after voting in his home constituency of Hambantota at the astrologically auspicious time of 10.53 am.

"My message is to remain calm and peacefully enjoy our victory."

The 69-year-old remains hugely popular among big sections of the majority Sinhalese community for presiding over the crushing defeat of Tamil guerrillas in 2009 after their 37-year war for a separate homeland.

But while he has drawn big crowds to rallies, he remains a polarising figure on an island still struggling to come to terms with the past.

- 'Peaceful, free and fair' -

Election Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya said at least 50 people were arrested Monday for trying to manipulate the vote, but the election had passed off peacefully.

"We are happy to say that we have conducted a peaceful, free and fair election," he told reporters in Colombo.

Turnout was an estimated 65 percent, higher than the last parliamentary polls in 2010, but well below the 81 percent who turned out on January 8 to hand Sirisena his surprise victory.

The president is thought to favour the United National Party (UNP) of outgoing premier Ranil Wickremesinghe to form the next government, with backing from Tamil and Muslim parties which have little love for Rajapakse.

Speaking after he voted in Colombo, Wickremesinghe said he was confident of forming a new government that could "consolidate the January 8 revolution".

"Let us now respect the verdict and let us all work together to build a new Sri Lanka without any disruptions," he told reporters.

- Blocking tactics -

Sirisena had been a senior member of the UPFA as well as health minister before he split to run for the presidency.

Although Sirisena is now UPFA leader, his reluctant agreement to Rajapakse's candidacy in the parliamentary elections highlighted his shaky grip on the party.

His decision to call early polls stemmed from frustration at the blocking tactics deployed by Rajapakse loyalists in parliament.

Rajapakse cultivated close ties with China during his decade in power, with Beijing helping to finance a host of infrastructure projects.

During the campaign Rajapakse pledged to press ahead with the mega-projects which have partially stalled since he left power.

Sirisena and Wickremesinghe have been trying to steer Colombo away from Beijing's close embrace and have made concerted efforts to improve ties with giant neighbour India.

The UNP has been emphasising its commitment to economic reforms and reconciliation, which it argues will be impossible under Rajapakse.

Opponents say Rajapakse's real objective is to secure parliamentary immunity against possible future prosecutions.

Since his defeat in January, Rajapakse has seen his wife and two of his brothers accused of corruption. One of his sons has also been implicated in the alleged murder of a former rugby star.

The perception that nepotism and corruption flourished under Rajapakse has damaged his reputation in the eyes of many voters.

"Ranil (Wickremesinghe) is not a thief unlike Mahinda (Rajapakse)," said N. Jayasekera, a taxi driver in Colombo, after he voted for the UNP.

His support though appeared as strong as ever among loyalists.

"Rajapakse is a great man for ending the civil war in 2009. In the history of my country, there is only one hero and that is Mahinda Rajapakse," said Jagath Kumara, 34, after voting in Hambantota.

Rajapakse was shunned by Western governments over the brutal end to the island's ethnic conflict, which prompted calls for international investigators to carry out a war crimes probe.

The UN says some 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed in the final stages of the war, one of the bloodiest in post-colonial Asia.