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Hanging in the Balance
Murders, bomb blast and vote-rigging marred Sri Lanka's Oct. 10 general election. Early results show a hung parliament is likely

October 12, 2000
Web posted at 11:50 a.m. Hong Kong time, 11:50 p.m. EDT

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It is being billed as perhaps Sri Lanka's most important general election. For whoever wins -- the results will be known on Thursday but a hung parliament is looking increasingly likely -- will have the daunting task of determining the future constitutional structure of the country.

Trapped for the past 18 years in a bloody civil war with Tamil separatists, Sri Lanka has come to the crossroads. The war seems unwinnable -- on both sides. And the only path to peace lies in a political settlement. But on what terms? This debate, whether to reshape the country into a loose federation that takes into account the grievances of the country's minority Tamils or to retain a centralized government, offering local body concessions, dominates politics in Sri Lanka.

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The two leading players, President Chandrika Kumaratunga and her ruling People's Alliance (PA) and opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, head of the United National Party (UNP), agree on the need for constitutional change but differ bitterly on the details, and on how to go about it. Kumaratunga wants to win over moderate Tamil support by devolving limited authority to provincial governments. This would address demands for more say in administering Tamil- populated areas. The Tamil Tigers, or Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), on the other hand are fighting for a Tamil homeland or independence in Sri Lanka's north and east.

Kumaratunga believes the Tamil Tiger guerrillas need to be defeated militarily first, before there can be peace. Having escaped an assassination attempt by a suicide bomber last December, she does not trust the Tigers' leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, who she says wants her dead. Wickremesinghe, on the other hand, wants to de-escalate the Tamil conflict by immediately setting up an interim council in the north and the east, which would include LTTE representatives, and open peace talks with Prabhakaran.

There is no love lost between the two leaders. Throughout the campaign they attacked each other's "settlement" proposals with a vengeance. Wickremesinghe accused the President of dividing the country with her planned constitutional reform. The President in turn charged that Wickremesinghe was planning to hand over the north and east of Sri Lanka to the LTTE and had already done a deal with the Tigers. He denied this.

Commentators, however, see very little difference between the two sides. "President Kumaratunga's solution to the ethnic crisis is not that different from the UNP's," says Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, director of Sri Lanka's Center for Policy Alternatives, an influential nongovernmental think tank. "She is aiming to put military pressure on the LTTE to get agreement on a set of constitutional reforms."

Although the war is at the heart of everything in Sri Lanka, the campaign has centered on the freeness and fairness of the poll. This has tended to push key national issues into the background. The fear of election violence and rigging has given an enormous boost to the newly formed Alliance for Democracy, set up to campaign for a free and fair election. Its signature yellow ribbon is being worn by tens of thousands across the country. Olympic women's sprint medallist Susanthika Jayasinghe wore one in Sydney, giving the campaign a huge boost. "It is the largest ever mass campaign launched in Sri Lanka and most people are surprised by the scale of its success," says Victor Ivan, editor of the opposition Ravaya newspaper. The government sees the Alliance as a challenge to its integrity. It was so outraged by Jayasinghe's yellow ribbon in Sydney that it cancelled a welcome home parade for her. The Alliance stepped in, and some 200,000 people lined the route from the Colombo airport to her home.

The polling on Tuesday was marred by violence and rigging, according to election monitors and campaign workers. There are some 5,000 candidates seeking the support of 12 million eligible voters for the 225 seats in parliament. "There has been widespread rigging in some areas of the country, says Arjuna Parakrama, head of the Center for Monitoring Election Violence. "The scale is such that we cannot accept the result as reflecting the will of the people." He added that the poll had been free and fair in only 12 of the country's 22 electoral districts. In eight districts they were "deeply flawed". In two districts, Jaffna and the Wanni, two northern areas where the war is being fought, a "normal election" was not possible.

The worst hit area was Kandy, the site of the country's most holy Buddhist relic. Here the influential Minister of Power and Deputy Minister of Defense, General Anurudha Ratwatta, unleashed hundreds of thugs and former soldiers on polling booths. Paramilitary forces were sent in to control the violence after some six people were killed; an overnight curfew had to be imposed. "The elections in Kandy is unacceptable, " said Rauf Hakeem, leader of the National Unity Alliance, a key partner in the governing coalition. "I complained to the President long before today about the activities of Minister Ratwatta but she took no action."

Even the General Secretary of the ruling PA coalition, D. M. Jayaratna, admitted that polling in many parts of the Kandy electoral district had been rigged. "I cannot call this a free and fair election [in Kandy]," he said. His statement clearly embarrassed the government and President Kumaratunga was quick to distance herself from the violence. "I understand that the Elections Commissioner has called for reports on certain irregularities that are reported to have taken place in some polling stations in the Kandy district," she said. "We shall support the Elections Commissioner in whatever action he takes."

First reports from the counting on Wednesday suggested the two leading parties were heading for a possible draw, leaving open the difficult prospect of a hung parliament. This could cause a constitutional and political deadlock. "The constitution does not really have provisions for a cohabitation situation [a president from one party and a government in parliament from another]," says Saravanamuttu of the Center for Policy Alternatives. The only way out would be another general election.

Meanwhile, the civil war against the Tamil Tigers continues, and the chance of building a political consensus on ending it seem as far away as ever.

Reported by Waruna Karunatilake in Colombo

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