Colombo: Sri Lanka`s upcoming Presidential Election is likely to be decided by the Tamil minority, as the Sinhalese majority`s vote appears evenly split between the two main candidates.
In a campaign dominated by the defeat of the Tamil rebels in May, both the incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his opponent retired General Sarath Fonseka are claiming responsibility for ending the 30-year conflict.
Rajapaksa, 64, who led the political drive to maintain military operations against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, called next week`s elections two years ahead of the end of his six-year term.
His support base among Sri Lanka`s Sinhalese majority, who represent around 70 percent of the country`s 20 million inhabitants, has been eroded by the challenge of General Fonseka, who spearheaded the military campaign against the rebels.
With the Sinhalese vote divided, the Tamil minority could hold the balance of power despite making up only 18 percent of the population.
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has thrown its weight behind Fonseka, who at 59 is making his first foray into politics.
The TNA, one of four major political parties backing the general, acted as the political representatives of the Tamil rebels before their military defeat in May.
Responsibility for the war and its end is the key issue, one way or the other, for the estimated 14 million Sri Lankans due to cast their vote on January 26.
In the Tamil-dominated north at least, support for the general seems to derive in part from his perceived distance from the political decision to pursue the conflict.
"It may be that General Fonseka carried out the military operations on the ground, but (...) it is President Rajapaksa who decided on the war", Tamil businessman Sivasothy Kanagaraja, 54, of Jaffna said, justifying his support for Fonseka.
In the mainly Sinhalese south, where the military campaign is viewed more positively, the former general shares the credit with his then commander-in-chief.
"It is because of President Rajapaksa the country was saved before the terrorist (Tamil rebels) carved out a separate state," Wimal Jayasinghe, 47 a farmer from Galle in southern Sri Lanka said, echoing a view held by many in rural Sinhalese areas.
Most Tamils did not vote in the previous Presidential Elections of 2005, due to a boycott called by Tamil rebels and affiliated political parties in the northern and eastern provinces.
The boycott is widely believed to have allowed Rajapaksa`s narrow victory of 180,000 votes. Most of the withheld Tamil votes would probably have gone to his opponent the former prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who oversaw the Norwegian-backed ceasefire with the rebels.
Rajapaksa has said he called this year`s election early to have his mandate confirmed by the Tamil electorate, who were effectively disenfranchised by the 2005 boycott.
But the opposition claims the decision to bring the election date forward was motivated by the President`s dwindling popularity, amid allegations of abuse of power, corruption and economic stagnation.
Fonseka, whilst also reminding voters of his role in the war, has stated that his "aim is to end corruption and nepotism in the Rajapaksa family."
The opposition coalition has also pledged to abolish the executive presidential system and vest more powers in the Parliament.
The President has pledged that, if re-elected, his second term "will be aimed at developing the country. I am sure as I won the war I will win the economic war as well," he said at a public meeting.
Over 35,000 policemen are to be deployed in over 10,000 polling booths across the country on election day, with Army backup provided until the results are announced the following day.