A former ally is 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 Centre 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 today.
Elections commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya said the election was peaceful.
Until just a few weeks ago, Mr 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.
Mr Sirisena gathered the support of other defecting politicians and many of the country’s ethnic minorities, making the election a fierce political battle.
Mr Rajapaksa, though, controls the state media, has immense financial resources and is still popular among the Sinhala majority, some of whom see him as a saviour for destroying Tamil Tiger rebels and ending a decades-long civil war in 2009.
But polling was notably strong in Tamil-dominated areas, where voting had been poor in previous elections. Many Tamils have felt abandoned since the war’s end, when Mr Rajapaksa largely ignored Tamil demands to heal the wounds of the fighting and years of ethnic divisions. They were expected to vote heavily for Mr Sirisena.
Both men 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 per cent of the population, but Mr Rajapaksa is deeply unpopular in the Tamil community.
The 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 Mr Rajapaksa’s campaign has centred on his victory over the Tamils and rebuilding the country’s infrastructure and economy, Mr Sirisena’s focuses is on reining in the president’s expanding powers. He also accuses Mr 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.
Following his victory in the last election in 2010 Mr Rajapaksajailed his opponent and used his parliamentary majority to scrap a constitutional two-term limit for the president. He also installed numerous relatives in top government positions.