/ 14 November 2005

Sri Lankan election ‘too close to call’

Sri Lanka’s presidential election this week has turned into a vote on the country’s distressed economy and the troubled peace process, with the two main contenders diverging sharply on the major issues.

About 13,3-million eligible voters will effectively be choosing on Thursday between the current and former prime ministers, who have radically different views on how to save the south Asian nation from economic and ethnic implosion.

Opinion polls say the two issues have emerged as the key points of debate in the vote, largely overshadowing the destruction caused by last year’s tsunami which killed over 31 000 people in the country.

Former prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe says he will revive talks with Tamil Tiger guerrillas and cut a peace deal “within two to three years” to end a conflict that has killed over 60 000 people since 1972.

In contrast, current Premier Mahinda Rajapakse wants a complete overhaul of the Oslo-backed initiatives and a renegotiation of a truce that has been in place since February 2002. But the Tigers say they are unwilling.

Fears of a return to war in Sri Lanka were heightened following the August 12 assassination of foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar.

The rebels denied involvement, but the government responded by placing the country under a state of emergency, a measure still in place for the elections.

The extraordinary laws give security forces the power to arrest and detain suspects for long periods.

Truce monitors reported that over 190 people have been killed so far this year in violence linked to the conflict, despite the ceasefire.

The frontrunners are also poles apart on how to turn around Sri Lanka’s battered economy.

While Wickremesinghe (56) wants to push ahead with market-friendly reforms and woo foreign investments, Rajapakse — who turns 60 the day after the election — is seeking a more inward-looking socialist system.

The premier cut pre-poll deals with the Marxist JVP and the ultra-nationalist all-Buddhist monks’ party known as the JHU, vowing that he would not make concessions to the Tigers.

The rebels have consequently dubbed Rajapakse the “war candidate” but argue that both contenders are using the island’s festering ethnic conflict to corner votes.

“They are both using the Tamil national question for their political advantage,” Tamil Tiger political chief SP Thamilselvan told Agence France Presse in a recent interview.

The Tigers are not in the running and have avoided supporting either main candidate even though the country’s minority Tamils, concentrated in the embattled northern and eastern provinces, have emerged as potential kingmakers.

The majority Sinhalese community is seen as split down the middle between Rajapakse and Wickremesinghe.

However, poll monitors have expressed fears that the daily reports of violence in the troubled regions could scare away voters, with a low turnout there potentially favouring the prime minister.

“I am not a ‘war candidate’,” said Rajapakse. “I am willing to go the extra mile for peace. I want peace. I want an honourable peace, a durable peace. I will talk to all, including the Tigers.”

Although Rajapakse is the candidate from the ruling party and was named by outgoing President Chandrika Kumaratunga, he does not have the full backing of his leader.

Kumaratunga is miffed by Rajapakse’s pacts with nationalists and his promises to overturn her policies, both on the economic front as well as on the peace initiative.

“It is too close to call,” said political analyst and former Sri Lankan foreign secretary Nanda Godage, who added that although there are 13 candidates in the running, only the former and present premiers stand a chance of winning. – AFP