Colombo, Sri Lanka - It is being described as one of the most closely fought and significant presidential elections in the past two decades as Sri Lankans get set to vote amid a backdrop of rising campaign violence.

Thursday's election is significant because it's the first national poll since a 2010 constitutional amendment made by President Mahinda Rajapaksa that removed term limits on the presidency, thereby allowing him to seek an unprecedented third term in office.

Rajapaksa, 69, announced a snap election on November 19, two years ahead of schedule. At the time, many people in the South Asian nation expected Rajapaksa to secure a comfortable victory over what was seen as a disorganised and divided opposition.

But 24 hours after the election announcement, a series of defections from the ruling United People's Freedom Alliance took place, raising questions about Rajapaksa's rule - and his ability to sustain it.

Supporters of President Mahinda Rajapaksa rally [Reuters]

The opposition - led by the United National Party - announced it had convinced Rajapaksa's then-health minister Maithripala Sirisena to abandon the president and contest the vote as his main opponent. 

Sirisena, 63, immediately accused Rajapaksa of leading the island nation into "dictatorship" and engaging in nepotism by awarding his family members prominent positions inside government. Rajapaksa's supporters responded by calling him a "traitor".

The surprise move by the opposition to field Sirisena suddenly threw the doors wide open in a contest that had earlier appeared to be all but won by the incumbent.

Oversteps

Rajapaksa was first elected in 2005 and overwhelmingly won another six-year term in 2010, a year after government forces crushed a decades-long insurgency by defeating ethnic Tamil rebels in a bloody months-long military operation. 

While the resounding defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) boosted Rajapaksa's image among the ethnic Sinhalese majority, an estimated 40,000 minority Tamil civilians were killed in the controversial final stage of the war.

Tamils - who predominantly live in the north and east and represent about 11 percent of Sri Lanka's nearly 22 million people - are widely expected to support Sirisena at the polls. 

Constitutional amendments that bestowed far-reaching powers upon the president led to a serious reduction in support from members of Rajapaksa's government with 26 members, including Sirisena, defecting and erasing a two-thirds majority in the 225-seat parliament.

Rajapaksa, meanwhile, has been able to recruit only two members of parliament from the opposition ranks.

The opposition has accused Rajapaksa of sidelining officials and instead using relatives to run the country. On a platform of "anti-family rule", it has accused the president and his family of corruption and abuse of power. 

Rajapaksa, however, has justified running for a third term because he helped end the civil war in 2009, which opened the door for significant development in the country. Some analysts say it is the president's close relationship with China that has seen the country's economy enjoy significant economic growth through infrastructure projects, including the construction of a multi-billion dollar port.

Sri Lanka's GDP has grown from about 2.0 percent at the war's end to a high of 7.7 percent in the third-quarter of 2014. Many in the business sector here have put this success down to ending the decades-old conflict and encouraging foreign investment in the country.

Economic realities

However, despite steady economic growth, the country continues to suffer rising inflation that has hit ordinary Sri Lankans hard.

Opposition legislator and Rajapaksa's former technology research minister Champika Ranawaka told Al Jazeera fuel costs remain high despite world oil prices rapidly falling.

"While the government boasts of economic prosperity, the average person in the country is forced to pay three times the normal amount for essential goods," Ranawaka said. "This government continues to maintain high prices due to corruption."

Susil Premajayantha, minister of the environment and renewable energy, denied Ranawaka's accusations.

"The reduction of the global petrol prices only came in to effect in the past few months. Once President Mahinda Rajapaksa is re-elected, we can re-negotiate and reduce the price of fuel," Premajayantha said.

The continued rise in the cost of living, and the president's inability to reduce it over the past few years, has resulted in Rajapaksa's declining popularity that soared following the end of the civil war.

The opposition accused him, however, of attempting to relive his glory days.

"The president's propaganda machine is in overdrive with images and footage from the war. He hopes to play on a fear factor of the LTTE [Tamil Tigers], rather than take the country forward," opposition MP Harsha de Silva told Al Jazeera. "It has been five years and he still continues to use the war as a popularity tool." 

Angry Tamil voters

Memories of the war will certainly count against Rajapaksa when it comes to the Tamil vote. The United Nations has continually pushed for an investigation into the conduct of the Sinhalese-dominated government during the final stages of the bloody conflict.

Rajapaksa's continued denial to do so has resulted in Tamils widely opposing him. 

Mathiaparanan Sumanthiran, a member of the Tamil National Alliance party, told Al Jazeera it is the president's continued prevention of accountability for the large-scale death and destruction that has cost Rajapaksa among Tamil voters.

Supporters of candidate Maithripala Sirisena cheer [AP]

"The president refuses to implement the recommendations his own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission has made. If he does, this would assist in solving the national issues faced by the Tamil people," Sumanthiran said.

While election campaigning, Rajapaksa has pledged to promote reconciliation in the country, a promise that many say will fall on deaf ears in the Tamil-dominated north.

Religious tension

Another factor weighing on the election is Rajapaksa's handling of recent religious violence in the country's south after attacks on the Muslim community, which so far have gone unpunished.

The hard-line Sinhala Buddhist group Bodu Bala Sena, which has been accused of inciting religious hatred, has joined Rajapaksa's supporting ranks. That move led to Muslim parties that had been part of the ruling coalition leaving the government and pledging support for the opposition.

As the election approaches, violence and voter intimidation continue with attacks on opposition supporters. Gunfire from unidentified assailants wounded three opposition workers preparing a stage for a Sirisena campaign speech on Monday in southern Kahawatte town, about 130 kilometres from the capital, Colombo.

Only one thing is certain ahead of Thursday's vote - an electoral contest that once promised to be a one-sided affair is now too close to call.

Follow Dinouk Colombage on Twitter: @dinouk_c

Source: Al Jazeera