Not only is the main challenger Maithripala Sirisena threatening incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s bid for an unprecedented third term – he is also promising to cancel Mr Packer’s plans to build a $400 million casino resort on the island if he wins.
Since becoming president in 2005, and crushing Sri Lanka’s rebel Tamil separatists in a brutal 2009 military offensive that has prompted allegations of war crimes, Mr Rajapaksa has put a heavy emphasis on foreign investment, particularly in the tourism sector.
International hotels and resorts have mushroomed across the island, and granting a licence to Mr Packer’s Crown Resorts seemed like another step in a winning strategy that has primed the economy and kept Mr Rajapaksa’s popularity high.
Instead the Packer project has become a plump target for the opposition, with many among the country’s majority Buddhist population believing the casino will become a magnet for prostitution and immoral social behaviour.
That the presidential race has become a close contest, with opinion polls suggesting the very real prospect of change, must have Mr Rajapaksa and his people scratching their heads.
Only four years into his second six-year term, Mr Rajapaksa was so confident of the strength of his popularity that he changed the constitution to allow himself a shot at a third term, and then decided to go to the polls early, setting January 8 as the election date.
A surprise challenger emerged in late November when popular Health Minister Maithripala Sirisena defected from Mr Rajapaksa’s ruling coalition, taking a few supporters with him across the floor to win the support of the influential opposition United National Party.
Skilfully exploiting Mr Rajapaksa’s main weakness – that he is turning Sri Lanka into a personal fiefdom run by him, his three brothers and his son, all of whom enjoy significant positions of influence – Mr Sirisena has run a bold campaign pledging to stamp out the corruption and cronyism that he says has become a feature of Mr Rajapaksa’s rule, and revive the role of parliament.
Mr Sirisena has also given an undertaking to establish an independent commission to address persistent and credible allegations of war crimes committed by government troops against Tamils during the closing phases of the 26-year civil war.
Other features of Mr Sirisena’s platform have been his promises of economic reform that would combat rapidly rising food prices, extend loan waivers to farmers in rural areas and keep fuel prices in check.
“The extent of corruption in Sri Lanka in the last few years is unprecedented and unheard of,” Mr Sirisena said when he released his manifesto in the week before Christmas. “I would achieve for the country 10 times the development that actually occurred during the past six years.”
That Mr Sirisena’s message is getting through was highlighted by a number of high-profile defections from the ruling coalition this week to Mr Sirisena that included some of Mr Rajapaksa’s most trusted advisers, and more MPs.
Mr Sirisena also has the backing of Sri Lanka’s minority Tamil and Muslim populations, who make up 25 per cent of the electorate,
In a statement this week, the Tamil National Alliance said: “The values of democracy, good governance, and rule of law have suffered [an] unprecedented assault” under Mr Rajapaksa.
“Instead of pursuing reconciliation, the Rajapaksa regime has permitted extremist groups to carry out attacks against minority peoples and their places of religious worship,” the statement said.
That the famously superstitious Mr Rajapaksa, who takes few decisions without first consulting his colourful and most trusted astrologer Sumanadasa Abeygunawardena, can see that the stars might not necessarily be aligned in his favour can be seen from his own pledge to establish an inquiry into possible war crimes – allegations he has always stoutly denied.
“If human rights were violated, I will establish a mechanism under the existing legal system to ensure justice in a transparent manner,” he said this week.
Who wins the election will be of particular interest in Canberra, where Tony Abbott’s government has made Mr Rajapaksa a close international partner in the Coalition’s attempt to halt the flow of refugees attemptingto enter Australia by boat.
Earlier this year, then immigration minister Scott Morrison went to Sri Lanka to oversee the formal handover of two navy patrol boats donated by the Australian Government that Mr Morrison said would assist Sri Lankan efforts to police refugee movements.
The election result is also being watched closely by Sri Lanka’s other Asia Pacific neighbours, especially India, where there have been growing concerns about Sri Lanka’s pivot towards China.
Not only has China been a major investor in Sri Lankan roads, ports and other key infrastructure, but late last year Chinese nuclear submarines became regular visitors to Sri Lanka, in contravention of a long-standing agreement with India.
In a recent paper, Australian foreign policy analyst David Brewster said these were no ordinary naval visits: “Their nature, frequency and timing are extraordinary – the first occurred during visits to Colombo by Japanese Prime Minister [Shinzo] Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping.”
He added that claims by Beijing that its nuclear-powered attack submarine was on deployment against Somali pirates were “risible”. “Although Colombo initially sought to keep them secret, the visits seem to be a deliberate signal by China that it is intends to maintain a submarine presence in the Indian Ocean and that Sri Lanka will play an important role that strategy.”
Just how free and fair Thursday’s elections will be is also open to question, with a group of seven independent monitors alleging that Mr Rajapaksa is trying to use ostensibly independent government agencies and their resources to skew the vote in his favour.
S. Ranugge, the executive director of Transparency International Sri Lanka, one of the monitor groups, has told reporters that the ruling party had been using state schools, offices, vehicles and public transport to gather crowds for campaign meetings.
“There is an unprecedented abuse of state resources and employees for the election by the ruling party,” said Keerthi Tennakoon, executive director of Campaign for Free and Fair Elections.
The observers said that police had not acted on complaints brought by opposition supporters of election-related violence, despite video evidence, and had been over-zealous in dealing with complaints from Rajapaksa supporters.
The Lawyers Collective, a rights group made up of lawyers, said separately in a statement that it was shocked by poll violations that included using the defence establishment and bribery.
In a report focusing on the upcoming elections released earlier this month, the International Crisis Group’s senior Sri Lanka analyst, Alan Keenan, warned that while the emergence of a viable opposition was welcome, it also raised the prospect of election-related violence and fraud as Mr Rajapaksa attempts to hold on to power.
“The opposition’s attempt to reopen democratic space also brings with it risks of violence and instability,” Dr Keenan said. “The tighter the race, the more violent it threatens to be.”
Sasha Riser-Kositsky, South Asia associate with the United States-based business and political consultancy the Eurasia Groupwhich has just taken on former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd as a senior adviser – also warned on Monday of the prospect of political violence.
“Incidents of political violence are likely to increase in the immediate run-up to voting as Rajapaksa tries to use security forces to depress opposition turnout,” Mr Riser-Kositsky said.