Sri Lankans have been voting today in a “tense” presidential election. President Mahinda Rajapakse has another 22 months of his term to run, but – most unusually for presidential systems – he has the power to call an early election, and did so to cash in on his presumed popularity from the defeat of the Tamils last year to end Sri Lanka’s civil war.

Unfortunately for Rajapakse, he is being challenged by the one person who could claim equal credit for the military victory, General Sarath Fonseka. Both candidates are promising national reconciliation, and in both cases (but especially Rajapakse’s) that needs to be taken with a very large grain of salt. A close contest is expected.

In the last election, in November 2005, Rajapakse’s opponent was former prime minister Ranil Wickramasinghe, who had signed the 2002 ceasefire agreement with the Tamil Tigers and promised to continue the peace process if elected. Rajapakse, although he made conciliatory noises during the campaign, was the more bellicose candidate and his victory was seen (rightly, as it turned out) as a decision for renewed warfare.

But that victory was very close: 50.3% to 48.4%. The Tigers had promised not to obstruct the election, but turnout in Tamil areas was well below the national average; in Jaffna district, then largely under separatist control, it was a derisory 1.2%. (Adam Carr has the figures, plus a fine set of maps.) Those who did vote, however, strongly supported Wickramasinghe.

If the Tamil areas had voted in the same numbers as the rest of the country, there is no doubt that Wickramasinghe would have been elected president, with possibly dramatic consequences. There might have been no renewal of the war, no large-scale human rights abuses, and even no boatloads of refugees off the Australian coast.

Much of the time, elections don’t make much difference to anything. But sometimes they really matter.