COLOMBO - Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse’s ruling Freedom Alliance was expected to sweep to victory in two of three provincial elections Saturday but face a challenge in the Tamil-populated east. Analysts expected the Freedom Alliance to sweep council elections in the north-central and central regions dominated by the island’s Sinhalese ethnic majority. However, in the Tamil-populated eastern province, Rajapakse’s party faced a challenge from an ethnic Tamil party, the Tamil National Alliance, which had once been a proxy of the Tamil Tiger rebels. “Voting has been brisk,” an election official said, and added overall turnout could be well above 50 percent.

The voting was to elect provincial councils, the highest level of local government which has limited autonomy. More than one million people were eligible to vote in the polls with results due by late Sunday. Rajapakse’s party had won the eastern provincial council in 2008, shortly after driving Tamil Tiger rebels out of the coastal region. The rebels were then confined to the island’s north and eventually crushed in May 2009.

The ruling party has won all key elections since, defeating the Tiger rebels who at the height of their power controlled nearly a third of the island, including the northern and eastern regions.