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Sri Lankans ready for elections

From Iqbal Athas

Election workers in Colombo, Sri Lanka, carry ballot boxes in advance of Thursday's voting.


Sri Lanka

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (CNN) -- Thirteen million Sri Lankans headed to the polls Thursday to elect the troubled island nation's fifth president.

Though 13 candidates are in the fray, the real tussle is between the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) candidate, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse, and opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, the leader of the United National Party.

A formidable task -- and one predecessors have failed -- will fall to the winner: Resolving the country's two-decade long ethnic conflict that has taken more than 60,000 lives.

Wickremasinghe, who was prime minister in 2002, brokered a ceasefire agreement with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), better known as Tamil Tiger rebels. He invited Norway to play the role of facilitator in the peace talks that followed.

However, the rebels pulled out of the talks in 2003, leaving behind a shaky ceasefire. Since then, the two sides have continued to level allegations against each other over violations.

Wickremasinghe has pledged, if elected, to resume talks and bring peace, and has sought a mandate from voters to form a national government with outgoing President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga's Freedom Party. She is ending her second term as president, and the constitution forbids her from vying for a third term.

But his party suffered a major blow November 10 when the rebels decided they would not back any candidate. They want to ask voters in areas under their control to boycott the elections, which could translate into fewer votes for Wickremasinghe.

The rebels say successive governments in the southern part of the country have not resolved their problems. Emissaries were heading to the rebel held northern town of Kilinochchi to plead their case.

Though from the freedom party, Prime Minister Rajapakse has angered his own President Kumaratunga over a number of election-related issues. One is his decision to enter into electoral pacts with the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), or the People's Liberation Front, and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), or National Heritage, a nationalist party of Buddhist monks.

The JVP pulled out of Kumarartunga's United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) in June, protesting over a mechanism she evolved with the Tiger rebels to share foreign aid for recovery after last December's devastating tsunami -- a system entitled P-TOMS, or the Post Tsunami Operational Management Structure. This led to the UPFA becoming a minority government in parliament.

Premier Rajapakse has pledged to abolish P-TOMS, and instead introduce a scheme where relief will not go directly to the Tiger rebels. This is after allegations the rebels were using part of the aid to rebuild their military infrastructure.

He has also angered Kumaratunga by disregarding her policy of sharing power with the rebels. He has pledged that such power sharing should be with the consensus of the people. This is in marked contrast to Wickremasinghe, who has vowed to introduce a federal system.

Outgoing President Kumaratunga has been openly critical of her prime minister and her party's candidate. She has said during public rallies that devolution of power for the Tamil areas was an essential prerequisite for peace.

In the run up to the vote, Sri Lankan newspapers have continued to highlight the differences between the president and her own prime minister.

A big message awaits the winner of the November 17 presidential elections. On November 27, Tiger rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran will deliver his annual "Maveerar (Great Heroes) Day" address. The annual address is awaited every year by successive governments and Colombo's diplomatic community. This is where Prabhakaran will spell out his organization's plans for the coming year.

Having built a formidable military machine during three and half years of ceasefire, including an airstrip and acquisition of aircraft, what Prabhakaran will tell the new president of Sri Lanka is highly anticipated.

Whether he would be content with a settlement within a unitary Sri Lanka, a federal set up or demand more remains the critical question.

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