Tamils may hand power to general who crushed Tigers

President's former ally has raised the stakes with appeal to minority he conquered in bloody civil war

If the outcome of Sri Lanka's bitterly contested presidential election were decided solely by which candidate had the largest billboard, then incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa could sleep easily in his bed.

At the international airport near Colombo, a huge hoarding shows the president, dressed entirely in white, a beatific smile beaming across his face. His advisers believe that as voters go to the polls tomorrow, their best asset is the candidate himself, a man who oversaw the defeat of separatist rebels and ended a brutal 30-year civil war.

Indeed, less than a year ago, after government troops crushed the rebels of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the authorities responded with a deluge of flag-waving celebrations that projected the president as something half-way between a God and a king, no one could have guessed that eight months later Mr Rajapaksa would be engaged in an ugly political dog-fight. And yet he is.

Ironies abound in Sri Lanka. The first is that Mr Rajapaksa's opponent, his former army chief Sarath Fonseka, is a man the president initially considered an ally and who was equally feted for his role in defeating the LTTE. The second is that while this election will split Sri Lanka's ethnic majority – both Mr Rajapaksa and his main opponent are staunch Sinhala Buddhist nationalists – the outcome may depend on whether the minority Tamil community bothers to vote and who it votes for. The final quirk is that many Tamils appear set to vote for Mr Fonseka, the man who oversaw a military operation that – according to UN estimates – resulted in the death of up to 10,000 Tamil civilians.

As voting day has drawn nearer, so the contest has become increasingly nasty. Reports suggest there have been up to 800 incidents of pre-poll violence and that four people have been killed. Yesterday, the opposition coalition backing Mr Fonseka raised the stakes further by claiming it had evidence the government was planning a "coup d'état of sorts" if the election went against it and that it would deploy troops to try to hang on to power.

Up to 15 armoured personnel carriers had been moved into the city for this purpose, it claimed. It added that in such circumstances its supporters would "take to the streets" if the will of the people was ignored.

"We have to be ready to defend our franchise," Ranil Wickremesinghe, head of the United National Party (UNP), and one of the main figures in the coalition that secured Mr Fonseka's candidacy, told a press conference. "We are making counter plans. We will get on to the streets if necessary."

Mr Fonseka, who like, Mr Rajapaksa, now dresses entirely in white, said he was confident the men he had commanded while still in uniform could not countenance such behaviour. "We are 100 per cent certain that the military and police will not carry out such orders," he said.

It was only last November that the 59-year-old general announced his resignation as chief of the defence staff and turned his mind to politics. In a series of increasingly outspoken attacks against the president, Mr Fonseka said that in the aftermath of the LTTE defeat, his own contribution had been overlooked by Mr Rajapaksa, who he claimed considered him a rival. He said at one point, the president believed he was planning a coup.

The former army chief was quickly recruited by an unlikely coalition, made up of the UNP, Muslims, Tamils and some strident nationalists who believed that in the martial, militaristic atmosphere following the crushing of the LTTE, Mr Fonseka with his chest full of medals represented their only chance of defeating the president. "You have to make the best of what there is," admitted a senior UNP leader, Ravi Karunanayake.

This point has not been lost on Mr Rajapaksa or his supporters in the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA). In an interview at his house, the foreign minister, Rohita Bogollagama, said: "What is unique is that the main opposition conceded defeat by not fielding a candidate from their own party. Now they are conceding that the presidency is something that is beyond their reach." Mr Rajapaksa's supporters say that in addition to defeating the LTTE, the president has overseen healthy economic growth and infrastructure development. Tourism is once again booming. The president also has the benefit of controlling much of the media. The front-page headline in The Sunday Observer newspaper declared: "President assured of resounding victory." Yet a constant criticism of the president is that his government, which includes several of his brothers in key positions, has overseen corruption. Another is that it has aggressively crushed dissent, especially within the media where more than a dozen journalists have been killed. The government adamantly denies such allegations.

"Things here are fine if you keep out of politics," said Lal Wickrematunge, chairman of the Sunday Leader newspaper and whose brother, Lasantha Wickrematunge, the editor and an outspoken critic of the government, was assassinated last January.

"If not, then there can be problems."

In Colombo, many Tamils say they will vote for Mr Fonseka in a tactical stand against the government. Outside a sweet-smelling flower stall close to a Hindu temple on Galle Road, Thaya, a 31-year-old engineer, said: "We have to get rid of this regime. They are doing everything – they are kidnapping people and taking their money. If they carry on like this they will the richest people in Asia."

While Mr Fonseka will be glad of such votes, he is aware his main constituency is the Sinhala establishment. When he first announced his candidacy, he sought the blessing of Buddhist monks at the ancient temple at Kelaniya.

He returned there again last night, bowing and smiling and hanging an offering of flowers before a sacred tree. A policeman on duty smiled as he watched the man he said he would be voting for, adding: "We need change."

The two candidates: How they compare

The President When President Mahinda Rajapaksa called an election two years before the end of his first term, he had hoped that his massive post-war popularity would secure him a second one. Little did he expect that, amid election-related violence and a sharp rise in the cost of food, he would find himself in such a tight race.

Rajapaksa won his first term as President in 2005 during a tenuous ceasefire agreement with the Tamil Tigers. But when peace talks did not yield results, he was forced to turn to his brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa – then serving as defence secretary – to draw up a plan to defeat them.

The 64-year-old points to his efforts to secure inward investment when appealing to voters. But his human rights record was severely damaged by the end of the war when thousands of civilians were killed by troops and he dismissed international calls for a last-minute ceasefire. Critics say he has also gone back on his pledge to protect journalists. The government denies the claims.

In 1970, the President, who originally trained as a lawyer, became the youngest legislator to enter parliament. He made a name for himself during the Marxist insurrection of 1987-1990 as a human rights defender. And 40 years after entering politics, he remains a family man: he has three brothers who serve in his administration.

The General When General Sarath Fonseka announced his candidacy last year, he vowed to work towards ending corruption and improving Sri Lanka's economy. He also said more had to be done to help the Tamil community, an apparent change of heart from comments earlier in the year when he said it had to accept its status as a minority. (He now says he was quoted out of context.)

What appealed to the opposition alliance was his undisputed record as a war leader central to the defeat of the LTTE. For the same reason, the government sees his challenge to the President as little less than treason. The General entered the army in 1970 and served as army commander from 2005-09. He led the victorious military campaign to crush the LTTE with a mix of outright firepower and counterinsurgency tactics. He was twice wounded in combat.

In April 2006, a female LTTE suicide bomber infiltrated army HQ. She blew herself up next to General Fonseka's car and nearly killed him. Within days of returning from hospital, the major operation against the LTTE was launched. He has pledged to abolish the executive presidency, secure the rights of Sri Lanka's minorities, including Tamils, and establish media freedom. A US green card holder, he has two daughters who attend university in Oklahoma.

From voters to visitor: Sri Lanka in numbers


Estimated number of people killed during 25 years of conflict.


People killed in election-related violence since December.


Reported acts of violence since campaigning started.

*14.1 million

People registered to vote.


Police to be deployed to protect polling stations when voting starts on Tuesday.


Tourists to visit in 2008, each spending $77 (£47) a day.

*21 million

Estimated population.