Sri Lankans elect a new president on Saturday in a ‘finely balanced’ race between the early favourite, former defence chief Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and government minister Sajith Premadasa, who has gained momentum in recent weeks.

The election comes amid a deep slump in the country following Easter Sunday attacks on hotels and churches by Islamist militants that killed over 250 people and sharpened tensions between majority Sinhalese and minority Muslims.

Added to that are long-standing grievances of ethnic Tamils, who say they are still to get justice stemming  from the human rights violations during a 26-war civil war with Tamil rebels, especially at the closing stages when a UN panel says around 40,000 people were killed.

Gotabaya, who over-saw the military rout of Tamil fighters under his brother and then president Mahinda Rajapaksa, has campaigned on a platform of national security, playing on the fears of Sinhalese Buddhists following the April attacks claimed by Islamic State.

Premadasa has sought to fire up the countryside with promises of free housing, schools uniforms for students and sanitary pads for women - touching on a topic rarely discussed in public but which has drawn women to his rallies.

Both the frontrunners in a field of 35 candidates said they will seek a balance in Sri Lanka’s political and economic ties with China and India that have competed for influence in the island that sits near busy shipping lanes.

However, Rajapaksa and his family are seen closer to China, which has led post-civil war reconstruction.

There are no opinion polls but political strategists in the two main campaigns, the minority parties and political analysts say the race has become much closer in recent weeks.

Initially, Rajapaksa was strongly favoured but Premadasa is seen to have closed in on him in the final two weeks of the campaign, they say.

An internal assessment shared by a government minister who is supporting the Premadasa campaign shows an edge over Rajapaksa after initially trailing him. But Kehelia Rambukwella, the spokesman for the Rajapaksa campaign, told Reuters on Friday the team was confident of winning.

The election is now ‘finely balanced’ between the two frontrunners, Eurasia said in a note. While Gotabaya is banking on the support of the Sinhalese, Premadasa has been assured the support of Tamil parties who strongly oppose a return of the Rajapaksas.

Muslims are also concerned they would be targeted in large-scale surveillance and raids that a Gotabaya presidency might bring.

‘The prospect of a new Rajapaksa presidency has heightened ethnic tensions and raised fears among minorities and democratic activists,’ said Alan Keenan from the International Crisis Group.

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