Voters in Sri Lanka are going to the polls in a general election, with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa hoping to return to office as prime minister.
Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the presidency in a snap election in January to his former health minister, Maithripala Sirisena.
Four people have died in violent incidents during the campaign although monitors say there has been less violence than in previous years.
Fifteen million people are eligible to vote, with results expected on August 18.
Polls opened at 07:00 local time and will close at 16:00.
Mahinda Rajapaksa is standing as a member of parliament for the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA).
If he wins his seat by a large margin, and the UPFA secure an outright majority, President Maithripala Sirisena (who leads the UPFA) will be under pressure to name him prime minister. However, Maithripala Sirisena has ruled this out.
Mahinda Rajapaksa, 69, is thought of as a hero by many of Sri Lanka’s Sinhala-speaking Buddhist majority for crushing a 26-year Tamil uprising in 2009.
However, opponents accuse him of running a corrupt, brutal and dynastic regime – charges he denies.
Ethnic tensions between the majority Sinhalese and the Tamil minority were the driving force behind a long and bitter civil war.
The conflict ended in May 2009 after more than 25 years of violence but recriminations over abuses by both sides continue.
Maithripala Sirisena, 63, formed a cross-party coalition to defeat Mahinda Rajapaksa in January, working with the UPFA’s main rival – the United National Party (UNP).
He led the coalition to a shock victory over the incumbent president, and UNP leader Ranil Wickramasinghe took the role of prime minister.
In a letter leaked during the campaign, Maithripala Sirisena accused Mahinda Rajapaksa of holding the party “hostage” and ruled out naming him prime minister.
The current president has also used his power as party leader to purge Mahinda Rajapaksa loyalists from key posts in recent days.
PM Ranil Wickremesinghe said at his last campaign stop on August 14: “We all united and voted against Rajapaksa to send him into retirement.
“If he hasn’t got the message, we should unite to make sure he understands it now.”
Analysts say the UNP has a better relationship with two smaller parties – the Tamil National Alliance and the leftist JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna) – which could potentially help it form the largest bloc in the 225-member parliament.
Pope Francis has arrived in Sri Lanka to begin a six-day Asian tour.
The pontiff, who will later travel to the Philippines, plans to celebrate open-air masses during his trip.
It is the first papal visit to Sri Lanka since the end of a 26-year civil war in 2009.
Maithripala Sirisena, Sri Lanka’s new president, has promised an end to growing repression of religious minorities.
Speaking on the tarmac of Colombo’s international airport shortly after he landed, Pope Francis said that peace could be found by “cultivating those virtues which foster reconciliation, solidarity and peace”.
Rebuilding Sri Lanka was more than just improving infrastructure, the pontiff said, “but also, and even more importantly, promoting human dignity, respect for human rights, and the full inclusion of each member of society”.
Pope Francis also said that the “pursuit of truth” was important, “not for the sake of opening old wounds, but rather as a necessary means of promoting justice, healing and unity”.
A brutal decades-long civil war ended in 2009 when the army defeated separatist minority Tamil rebels. The UN said both sides committed atrocities against civilians.
The government consistently denied allegations that it was responsible for the deaths of many thousands of civilians in the final phase of that war. Last year the UN approved an inquiry into alleged war crimes.
Just over 7% of Sri Lanka’s population is Christian, mostly Catholic – but they include both Sinhalese and Tamils. Around 70% of Sri Lankans are Buddhist, with 13% Hindus and 10% Muslims.
During the last papal visit 20 years ago, Pope John Paul II was boycotted by Buddhist leaders.
On this visit, Pope Francis is expected to hold a multi-faith prayer meeting which should include moderate Buddhist representatives.
Buddhist fundamentalism has grown as a force in Sri Lanka since the last papal visit, with some waging a violent campaign against Muslims on the island.
Pope Francis wants to encourage the local church to seek partners in peace, so that all religions can stand united against any further violence or intimidation by religious extremists.
It is a time of significant change in Sri Lanka, where Maithripala Sirisena took office as president on January 9.
Maithripala Sirisena ended the decade-long rule of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, a period which critics said had been marred by increasing corruption and authoritarianism.
Pope Francis’ trip, which comes five months after a tour of South Korea, is being seen as an attempt to win new followers in Asia and to shore up support for the region’s millions of Catholics.
In the Philippines organizers are expecting one of the biggest crowds ever for a papal visit when Pope Francis conducts an open-air mass in the capital Manila.
Church officials say Pope Francis’ visit to the archipelago nation will focus on “mercy and compassion” following a deadly 2013 typhoon, reports the AFP news agency.
Sri Lanka’s ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa tried to deploy the army when he realized that he had lost elections, a spokesman for new President Maithripala Sirisena has alleged.
The spokesman said that the head of the armed forces came under pressure to intervene shortly before Mahinda Rajapaksa conceded defeat on 47.6% of the vote.
There has been no comment from the military about the allegations.
The deposed president’s spokesman denied the claims as baseless.
“There was no such attempt at all,” said Mohan Samaranayake.
“In fact, at 3:30 am on January 9 when the counting was still under way, the president made an assessment and decided what the results would be,” he added.
“Then he gave instructions to all secretaries about a smooth transfer of power… The politician who has made these remarks is in the habit of making baseless allegations.”
Sri Lanka has largely been free of military interference in politics except for a coup in 1962 that failed to oust the government. Since then, there has been no direct military role in the government.
President Maithripala Sirisena’s top aide said on January 10 that pressure had been applied by the outgoing leadership onto armed forces head Gen. Daya Ratnayake to intervene in the result in the hours before Mahinda Rajapaksa accepted defeat.
“The army chief was under pressure to deploy but he did not. He declined to do anything illegal,” Rajitha Senaratne, the chief spokesman for the new president, told reporters in Colombo.
“Even in the last hour, he [Mahinda Rajapaksa] tried to remain in office. Only when he realized that he had no other option, he decided to go.”
Rajitha Senaratne did not detail whether the outgoing president himself tried to contact the military chief or whether the approach was made by his younger brother, Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.
He also said that the new president has ordered an end to the censorship of dissident websites, the abolition of phone tapping and a stop to the surveillance of journalists and politicians.
The outgoing president was praised by Secretary of State John Kerry for his early concession.
Mahinda Rajapaksa – seeking a third term in office after he changed the constitution to scrap the two-term limit – said on Twitter soon after the vote that he was working to a peaceful transition of power.
His supporters credit him with ending the civil war and boosting the economy, but critics say he had become increasingly authoritarian and corrupt.
Maithripala Sirisena is expected to make an address to the nation from the historic hill resort of Kandy on January 11.
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