Presidential candidates clash as Sri Lanka prepares to vote

On the eve of Sri Lanka's hard-fought presidential election, the two main candidates have let fly a further volley of accusations and counter-allegations, with each side claiming the other is planning illegal, unconstitutional moves to seize power.

As up to 250,000 election officials fanned out across the country, supporters of President Mahinda Rajapaksa used the last day before polling begins to allege that his main opponent, General Sarath Fonseka, had 800 army deserters at his disposal to disrupt voting yesterday. General Fonseka, the former army chief who was sidelined by the president, rejected such claims and repeated his own allegation that the government was preparing to try and use troops to hold on to power.

On a day on which campaigning was technically forbidden, foreign minister Rohitha Bogollagama called journalists together to say that polling might not go smoothly. "Our intelligence says between 600 and 800 army deserters headed by a former major general are roaming around to create poll-related problems," he said.

He had called the press conference to rebut allegations made by General Fonseka that the government was planning a "coup d'état of sorts" if the vote went against it.

If it seems that neither side is able to avoid hurling vicious allegations at the other, it may be because so much is at stake in this presidential election, the first national poll since the crushing of Tamil separatist rebels last spring that ended a three-decades-old war.

Whoever wins will relish the potential of a $40bn economy that is likely to grow as investment and tourism soar, and the benefits of peace accumulate. Yet Sri Lanka is a country where the wounds of war have yet to be healed. The largely Tamil areas – even those not controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) – have seen nothing of the development and infrastructure investment that other, largely Sinhala Buddhist, areas have.

Many Tamils remain wary of the government and, as a result, it appears that a considerable number of them may vote for General Fonseka, who over the weekend picked up the backing of former president Chandrika Kumaratunga, a long-time rival of Mr Rajapaksa.

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