Long lines formed in the capital Thursday and voter turnout was heavy in Sri Lanka's Tamil heartland as President Mahinda Rajapaksa faced his toughest electoral challenge in years, with a former ally trying to unseat the leader who crushed a brutal Tamil insurgency and amassed immense power for himself and his family.
Some voters were prevented from casting ballots in the Tamil-dominated north, according to the Center for Monitoring Election Violence, and there were a handful of incidents of isolated violence, but no injuries were reported. Results were expected to be announced Friday.
Until just a few weeks ago, Rajapaksa was widely expected to easily win his third term in office. But that changed suddenly in November, when his former friend and health minister, Maithripala Sirisena, defected from the ruling party and turned the election into a referendum on the president and the enormous power he wields over the island nation of 21 million.
Sirisena gathered the support of other defecting lawmakers and many of the country's ethnic minorities, making the election a fierce political battle.
Rajapaksa, though, will be difficult to beat. He controls the state media, has immense financial resources and is still popular among the Sinhala majority, some of whom see him as a savior for destroying Tamil Tiger rebels and ending a decades-long civil war in 2009.
But polling was notably strong Thursday in Tamil-dominated areas, where voting had been poor in previous elections. Many Tamils have felt abandoned since the war's end, when Rajapaksa largely ignored Tamil demands to heal the wounds of the fighting and years of ethnic divisions. They were expected to vote heavily for Sirisena.
Both Sirisena and Rajapaksa are ethnic Sinhalese, who make up about three-quarters of the country. Neither has done much to reach out to Tamils, who account for about 9 percent of the population, but Rajapaksa is deeply unpopular in the Tamil community.
The wider world was watching the election in case violence should erupt after the results are announced, especially since Pope Francis is scheduled to arrive in the country on Tuesday.
While Rajapaksa's campaign has centered around his victory over the Tamils and his work rebuilding the country's infrastructure and economy, Sirisena's focuses on reining in the president's expanding powers. He also accuses Rajapaksa of corruption, a charge the president denies.
The economy has grown quickly in recent years, fed by enormous construction projects, many built with Chinese investment money. But Sri Lanka still has a large underclass, many of whom are increasingly frustrated at being left out.
"It is true big projects came but the poor struggle even to build a home," said Ranjith Abeysinghe, a taxi driver in the town of Gampaha, north of Colombo. "We need a change, we need a government that thinks about the poor."
"The president did what he promised by winning the war — he has shown results," said Janaka Pradeep, who is from the same town. "The opposition will only lead the country to chaos."
The Center for Monitoring Election Violence said it had complained to the election commissioner that bus drivers in the northern Mannar district had stopped transporting voters to balloting stations on the instructions of a ruling party politician. The center also said Rajapaksa campaigners had sent text messages to Tamil voters urging them to boycott the election.
Rajapaksa's power grew immensely after he defeated the Tigers. Following his victory in the last election in 2010 he jailed his opponent and used his parliamentary majority to scrap a constitutional two-term limit for the president and give himself the power to appoint judges, top bureaucrats, police officials and military chiefs. He also orchestrated the impeachment of the country's chief justice.
He also installed numerous relatives in top government positions. One brother is a Cabinet minister, another is the speaker of Parliament and a third is the defense secretary. His older son is a member of Parliament and a nephew is a provincial chief minister.