COLOMBO, Oct 7 (Reuters): Thirteen men registered Friday to run for Sri Lanka's presidency, but the election is seen as a race between Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse and his predecessor that is too close to call.
Rajapakse was among the first to formalise his nomination at the Elections Secretariat in suburban Colombo, speeding through emptied streets under the guard of armed soldiers on motorbikes.
The government has increased security around the capital in the run-up-to the November 17 election as the August assassination of the foreign minister by suspected Tamil Tiger rebels looms large over a 2002 ceasefire that halted two decades of civil war.
"I will bring peace and prosperity to the country, so people can live without fear and suspicion," Rajapakse told reporters on arrival. "I want to alleviate poverty."
Both Rajapakse, who is left of centre, and his right-of-centre contender, main opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, are campaigning on pledges of lasting peace with the rebels and to bolster an economy struggling under the weight of high oil prices and double-digit inflation.
But Rajapakse has forged election pacts with hardline Marxists and Buddhist monks who are virulently against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam's (LTTE) demand for interim self-rule, which analysts say are scaring off moderate voters.
He is also locked in a power struggle with outgoing President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who has served two terms and cannot run again, over differences on how to handle the peace process.
Wickremesinghe who lost a 1999 presidential election to Kumaratunga, has won the support of a clutch of Sri Lanka's minority parties, and analysts expect a photo-finish when the 13.3 million-strong electorate votes.
He has pitched a populist manifesto with pro-poor subsidies to woo the masses who voted his government out in 2004.
He has pledged to create three million jobs and double economic growth to 10 per cent a year for a decade if allowed to serve two consecutive six-year terms, and to seal a permanent end to a civil war that killed over 64,000 people up until the truce.
"I want to bring a final political solution to the country," said market- favourite Wickremesinghe as he arrived to register.
The 11 other candidates are running for small minority parties, and leftist groups are not expected to mount a serious challenge.
"Basically it is a contest between the two main candidates, and is based on alliances," said Jayadeva Uyangoda, head of political science at Colombo University.
"Rajapakse's alliance is basically a Sinhala nationalist alliance, and Wickremesinghe's is a multi-ethnic alliance," he added. "Whoever wins will just scrape through."
Sri Lanka's election commissioner has warned he will annul the poll and re-run it on November 19 if there is violence, and will lay on buses to ferry residents in rebel-held areas in the north and east to polling booths in military-held land.
AP from Kilinochchi adds: A Norwegian diplomat asked Tamil Tiger rebels to halt political assassinations and child conscription as continued violence threatened to derail Sri Lanka's fragile ceasefire, officials said.
Hans Brattskar, Norway's ambassador to Sri Lanka, met the Tamil Tigers' political head, SP Thamilselvan, Thursday at the northern rebel-held capital of Kilinochchi.
"I urged Thamilselvan to do what he can to make certain that the political killings are stopped, child conscription stopped," Brattskar told reporters after the meeting.