Thursday, April 08, 2010

Record low turnout in Sri Lanka parliamentary elections

Voting in Sri Lanka's parliamentary elections has ended with a record-low turnout compared to previous national elections, officials said Thursday.

As polls closed at 4 pm (1030 GMT) only an average of 55 per cent of registered voters had turned up at the more than 10,000 polling stations throughout the country. Polling had started at at 7 am.

Some 74.4 per cent voted in January's presidential polls, while at the last parliamentary elections in 2004 over 75 per cent turned up.

'From all parts of the island we are hearing that only small groups are turning up for voting,' an election official in Colombo said.

Sri Lanka has held a string of elections in the last two years, holding five provincial elections last year, as well as presidential and general elections this year.

President Mahida Rajapaksa called the presidential elections two years ahead of schedule in a bid to cash in on his popularity after the military's win over Sri Lanka's Tamil rebels.

The lackluster response from the voters has also been attributed to complacency, as it seemed certain that Rajapaksa' ruling United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) was heading for a victory.

Fourteen million people were registered to vote, including in areas previously held by Tamil rebels in the northern and eastern parts of the country.

It was the first parliamentary election in 33 years without the rebellion of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who were defeated in May.

The government said special arrangements have been made for the members of the ethnic Tamil minority who were displaced by the war and are still living in refugee camps to cast their vote.

But election monitors said that the majority of the displaced who had registered to vote were unable to do so.

The Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CAFFE) monitoring group said that in one of the polling station in the northern district of Kilinochchi only 362 out of 7,504 registered voters turned up, while at another station with 10,240 registered voters only 283 had voted.

'Despite claims by the government that arrangements had been made for the displaced voters to vote freely there was lot of confusion about where they should vote and about the logistical arrangements such as transport for them to go voting,' the CAFFE said.

The main parties contesting the poll are the ruling UPFA, and the main opposition United National Party, headed by former prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

General Sarath Fonseka, Sri Lanka's former army chief, is also a candidate at the head of an alliance backed by a Marxist party. He is currently in military custody accused of conspiracy and fraud during his time at the head of the armed forces.

The low turnout could favour Fonseka's party as the Marxist JVP party had got most of their supporters out to vote.

Fonseka also contested the January presidential elections after a fallout with Rajapaksa.

In the northern part of the country a Tamil minority party which earlier was working under the direct influence of the Tamil rebels took part in the polls.

Rajapaksa, who was re-elected as president for a six-year term with 58 per cent of the vote, has the edge in ensuring his party returns to power.

Over 7,600 candidates are vying to enter the 225-seat parliament for a six-year term.

The government has put 83,000 police and army personnel on election duty amidst a series of violent incidents.

In the run-up to the poll over 350 incidents were reported to the police, including one election-related death.

More than 19,000 independent election monitors have been deployed. However, they do not have the legal power to prevent malpractices.

The main opposition has accused the government of misusing state vehicles, the state media and officials for the ruling partys campaign.

Opposition parties have claimed that some of their polling agents were prevented from reaching the stations in Central Province and North-Western Province. More incidents of cases of intimidation and preventing voters from voting have been reported in provinces.

Vote counting is due to start on Thursday night with the initial results released after midnight, election officials said.

The final counts are to be made public by Friday midday, and the names of the elected representatives by Saturday.

© Monsters and Critics

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