With near-daily violence as a backdrop, Thursday's presidential election in Sri Lanka has effectively become a referendum on the island nation's faltering peace process. The vote caps a year that opened with the devastation of the Indian Ocean tsunami and comes amid stalled peace efforts in a land of tea plantations and wide beaches that, in better times, were packed with Europeans on tropical vacations.
"We need changes, our country only moves from side to side," said R.K. Fernando, a 52-year-old shop owner in Colombo.
Change is the one certain outcome of the vote, Chandrika Kumaratunga, president for the past 11 years, isn't running because of a constitutional two-term limit.
Her replacement will have to deal with a floundering economy and questions over whether the government should work with the rebel Tamil Tigers in handing out tsunami aid.
But, as it has for the past two decades, the war with the Tigers, who are said to have pioneered the use of explosive belts now worn by suicide bombers around the world, overshadows all else.
Peace talks to build on a 2002 cease-fire are stalled, and Sri Lankans now refer to the regular shootings and bombings in and around Tiger strongholds in the north and east as the "shadow war."
"No war? Our minister of foreign affairs was killed," said G.K. Peiris, a 62-year-old businessman, referring to the Aug. 12 assassination of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, a killing blamed on the Tigers. "I don't know why it is called a shadow war." There are 13 candidates, but the race has come down to two men who each promise peace but have staked out turf on opposite sides of Sri Lanka's political spectrum.
Ruling party candidate Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse, who turns 60 the day after the vote, has secured the support of hardline Marxists and Buddhist monks by pledging not to share political power or tsunami aid with the Tigers and to review the peace process.
The tough talk on the rebels has won him support among Sri Lanka's Sinhalese majority, most of whom are Buddhist, even if it has alienated Kumaratunga, his one-time patron who favors trying to share power with the Tigers.
Opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, 56, who signed the cease-fire with the rebels when he was prime minister, has promised to resume the peace talks and give Tamils more autonomy.
He is backed by business leaders for his open economic policies, and his softer line on the rebels has won him support among Sri Lanka's Tamil and Muslim minorities, giving him a slight edge in recent polls.
Most observers, however, say the race is too close to call, making Tamils, who account for 3.2 million of the country's 19 million people, a crucial swing vote.
But whether many will even make it to the polls is an open question. There will be no polling stations in rebel territory, home to some 100,000 voters, because of security concerns.
Those who want to vote will be bused to polling stations in government areas, where Wickremesinghe's party claims the government has deployed thugs to intimidate voters and stuff ballots. Officials deny the allegations.
While the Tigers have made no overt statements on the election, pro-rebel student groups that often speak for the rebels have urged Tamils to boycott the election, a call that at least some will heed, reports the AP. I.L.