Former strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa's family is eyeing a comeback after a decade in power remembered by supporters for crushing the Tamil militants. His main opponent Sajith Premadasa is vowing security and development in the island nation.
Sri Lankans voted on Saturday for a new president in what could mark a comeback for the Rajapaksa clan, loved for crushing the Tamil Tigers but loathed for alleged war crimes, corruption and cosying up to China.
Despite 85,000 police on duty in an island that emerged from civil war only a decade ago and in April suffered Daesh-inspired bombings, gunmen attacked a convoy of 100 buses transporting minority Muslim voters in the northwest, police said. No casualties were reported.
In the Tamil-dominated northern peninsula of Jaffna, police reported to the Election Commission that the army was illegally manning roadblocks that could inhibit voters reaching polling booths.
Police also arrested 10 men there suspected of "trying to create trouble", a police official said.
At the 2015 election there was a series of explosions in the region that activists said were aimed at reducing turnout.
This time there were long queues outside polling stations even before voting began.
Minority Tamils and Muslims are seen as crucial to deciding the winner in the close contest, in which almost 16 million eligible will choose from a record 35 candidates.
Polling booths opened across the island at 7 am (0130 GMT) and voting would continue for 10 hours under tight security.
Results could come as early as midday (0630 GMT) on Sunday.
Four years after political bruiser Rajapaksa lost power in 2015, his brother Gotabaya, 70, is running for the top job, promising development and security seven months after attacks killed 269 people.
His main opponent is Sajith Premadasa, 52, from the governing liberal United National Party (or UNP), son of assassinated former president Ranasinghe Premadasa, who is also vowing security and development as well as free sanitary pads for poor women.
The Rajapaksas are adored by Sri Lanka's Sinhalese majority for defeating the Tigers and ending Sri Lanka's 37-year civil war in 2009 in which around 100,000 people lost their lives on the Indian Ocean island nation of 21.6 million.
Colombo-based journalist Roel Raymond has more.
Attack on Muslim voters
Gunmen opened fire on a convoy of buses carrying minority Muslim voters in northwest Sri Lanka, hours before polling in presidential elections got underway, police said.
There were no reports of casualties, but a police official said the attackers had burnt tyres on the road and set up makeshift roadblocks to ambush the convoy of more than 100 vehicles.
"The gunmen opened fire and also pelted stones," a police official in Tantirimale, 240 kilometres (150 miles) north of Colombo said. "At least two buses were hit, but we have no reports of casualties."
CMEV confirms incident this morning of a convoy of buses carrying voters being obstructed by burnt tires, pelted by stones & shot at by unidentified persons, in Thanthirimalai in Anuradhapura district. No reported injuries. Police are investigating#PresPollSL #PresPoll2019 #lka— CMEV (@cmev) November 16, 2019
Muslims from the coastal town of Puttalam were travelling to the neighbouring district of Mannar, where they were registered to vote, the police official said.
Police reinforcements rushed to the area and cleared the obstructions on the road and escorted the convoy so that passengers could cast their ballots.
The incident came as police and troops were locked in a tense standoff in the Tamil-dominated northern peninsula of Jaffna where residents complained of military roadblocks ahead of voting.
Police reported to the independent Election Commission that the army was illegally manning roadblocks that could discourage residents from freely travelling to polling booths on Saturday.
"After bringing to the notice of the army that the roadblocks were illegal at a time of a national election, they have dismantled them," police said in a statement.
Police sources said they had also warned local military commanders that any disruption to the election would be reported to courts and offenders prosecuted.
Sri Lanka’s minority Tamils and Muslims are seen as crucial to deciding a winner in a close contest between the two front runners.
Local media reports have feared that a strong military presence in Jaffna, the heartland of the island's Tamil minority, could influence voter turnout and favour Rajapaksa.