Rajapaksa takes early lead in Sri Lanka election

Colombo (AFP) –


Sri Lanka's former wartime defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa took an early lead Sunday in a fiercely fought presidential election conducted under high security seven months after deadly Islamist attacks.

Rajapaksa, the main opposition candidate, was leading with 52.87 percent while housing minister Sajith Premadasa had 39.67 percent out of half a million votes counted, according to the Election Commission.

Leftist Anura Kumara Dissanayake was in third place with 4.69 percent. There were 32 other candidates for the top job.

Commission chairman Mahinda Deshapriya said at least 80 percent of the 15.99 million eligible voters participated in Saturday's poll, which was marred by isolated violence that left several people injured.

Rajapaksa, 70, was leading in the island's majority Sinhalese areas while Premadasa showed strong support from among the island's minority Tamil community in the northern and eastern regions.

Premadasa, 52, from the liberal United National Party (UNP), is the son of assassinated ex-president Ranasinghe Premadasa.

The election is the first popularity test of the UNP-led government since the April 21 suicide bomb attacks that killed at least 269 people and were blamed on local Islamist extremists.

The government had faced severe criticism for failing to prevent the attacks despite prior warnings.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe stepped aside, allowing his deputy Premadasa to enter the fray and face Rajapaksa, the younger brother of former strongman president Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Gotabaya is credited with directing security forces to crush Tamil rebels and end a 37-year separatist war in May 2009 during the tenure of Mahinda, who was president from 2005 to 2015.

The Election Commission has said it hopes to provide final results by late Sunday.