/ 27 November 2009

Sri Lankan leader gambles on January election

Sri Lanka will hold early presidential elections on January 26, officials said on Friday, a move which may backfire against incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa with the possible entry of a popular former army chief.

Rajapaksa’s six-year term ends in November 2011 but he has used a constitutional provision allowing for polls to be called two years early to take advantage of popular support after the end of a 25-year separatist insurgency in May.

But the decision, which separates the country’s sixth presidential poll from parliamentary elections, could backfire with the likely entry of the former general who led offensives which finally ended the war against Tamil Tiger separatists.

An official at Sri Lanka’s Elections Commission told Reuters on Friday the election would be held on January 26, with nominations to be received on December 17.

Political analysts say Rajapaksa will use issues like the cost of living and public wage hikes to veil what is really an attempt to take advantage of post-war popularity.

Sri Lanka’s main opposition party, the United National Party (UNP), said on Thursday it would back former army chief Sarath Fonseka, the man widely credited for winning the war against the Tamil rebels, as its candidate.

Fonseka has yet to formally announce his candidacy.

Another key party, the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peremuna, which helped Rajapaksa win in 2005 with its effective campaigning and control over trade unions, has also said it would support Fonseka if he runs.

Analysts say the emergence of Fonseka as a unifying opposition figure could ruin Rajapaksa’s plans.

”General Fonseka has caused a lot of apprehension in the government and has become a serious challenger,” said Jehan Perera, an analyst with the non-partisan National Peace Council.

Fonseka, a 39-year army veteran, quit the military after running a 34-month offensive against the Tamil rebels, saying he planned to enter politics. He accused Rajapaksa of unjustly sidelining him over unfounded coup fears.

He could now easily split Rajapaksa’s support base and win over the votes of Sri Lankans happy the conflict is finally over.

Rajapaksa’s government has since tried to downplay Fonseka’s role in ending a conflict during which more than 80 000 Sri Lankans were killed. — Reuters