Disastrous defeats in the war against rebels seemed to have destroyed President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga's chances for reelection Tuesday. But that was before she was injured in a bombing the military blamed on Tamil Tiger rebels.
"My feeling is that this would create a sympathy vote and will help her at the election," said Jehan Perera with the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, an independent think tank.
The election campaign has been dominated by the 16-year war with separatist Tamil rebels, a fight that has killed about 55,000 people.
Kumaratunga is asking the electorate for a broader mandate to either pursue peace or crush the rebels with military force.
Her main opponent, Ranil Wickremasinghe, has rejected Kumaratunga's plan for regional autonomy and pledged to pursue unconditional peace negotiations with the Tamil Tigers. Wickremasinghe appeared to be the favorite to win Tuesday until bombers attacked Kumaratunga's rally on Saturday and another rally held by Wickremasinghe's United National Party, killing 33 people.
The bombings apparently signaled the Tigers' anger at Kumaratunga, who held three months of failed talks with the rebels after she won the 1994 elections.
"The LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] has made it very clear that it wants Mrs. Kumaratunga out of the picture at all cost, and this may harden attitudes of many Sinhalese against the LTTE," Perera said.
Tamils, who are predominantly Hindu or Christian, have never been accepted by the Sinhalese majority, whose ethnic mythology proclaims they were granted this bountiful tropical island to preserve their unique Buddhist-based culture.
Hours after she was released from the hospital, Kumaratunga, with her head and right eye swathed in bandages, appeared on television to ask for national unity in the fight against terrorism.
Soldiers in battle fatigues spread out across Sri Lanka today to reinforce police at the nearly 10,000 polling stations and protect against violence.
Nine other candidates were in the race, and could siphon off enough votes to prevent either of the front-runners from winning an absolute majority. If that happens, the second preferences marked on the ballots will decide the winner.
The hammering on the battlefield over the past six weeks highlighted a deep-running disillusionment with five years of rule that failed to deliver on Kumaratunga's promise to end the debilitating war, give a fair deal to the Tamil minority and bring economic prosperity.
With the Sinhalese split, the Tamils will have a decisive vote. Although they united behind Kumaratunga in 1994, this year nearly all mainstream Tamil parties have refused to endorse her.
After Sri Lanka gained independence from Britain in 1948, the Sinhalese, who are 75 percent of the population, imposed discriminatory laws, proclaimed their language the official tongue and suppressed Tamil culture in the schools.
The conflict erupted into a full-scale rebellion in 1983, with the rebels demanding a partition of the country. Nearly 1.2 million people have been displaced in a total population of 18.6 million.