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And The Winner Is...
Sri Lanka's political parties scramble to form a government

October 13, 2000
Web posted at 4:00 p.m. Hong Kong time, 4:00 a.m. EDT

After an inconclusive general election that left no party with an absolute majority, Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga's ruling People's Alliance scraped back into power last week with the support of two minority parties. The new coalition has 116 seats in the 225-member Parliament and is led by the incumbent Prime Minster, Ratnasiri Wickramanayake. The campaign and election were marred by widespread violence that left 71 people dead. Ranil Wickremasinghe, leader of the main opposition United National Party, predicted that the new government would not last its full six-year term.
From's World Watch, October 16, 2000

Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga's People's Alliance (PA) and the main opposition United National Party (UNP) led by Ranil Wickremesinghe, were locked in negotiations Friday with smaller parties to try to form a government after an inconclusive general election.

The PA emerged as the largest party in the controversial Oct. 10 poll, which was marred by allegations of widespread rigging and intimidation. But the party failed to win a simple majority. It won 107 seats in the 225-member Parliament, while the UNP won 89 seats. Twenty-four hours after the polls closed, a spokesman for the ruling party, Sports Minister S.B. Dissanayake, said the PA would form the next government with the support of the Eelam People's Democratic Party, a Tamil political party which won four seats.

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However, the formation of a new government might not be so simple. A former core supporter of the PA, the Muslim National Unity Alliance (NUA), is having doubts. Its position could determine which of the two main parties rules the country. Six of the 107 People's Alliance ministers belong to the NUA. The NUA also won four more seats, which it contested on its own, giving it a total of 10 seats. Its support is crucial if the ruling alliance is to form a new government. Its support is equally crucial to the formation of an UNP-led government. "We have not decided yet whether to support the PA," the coleader of the party, Rauf Hakeem, said. [The NUA's leader, Mohammed Ashraff, was killed in a helicopter crash during the campaign. He was succeeded by his wife and Hakeem as joint leaders]. Behind his hesitation was outrage at the polling violence for which blame is being laid squarely on the government.

The Elections Commissioner Dayananda Dissanayake said: "According to the number of incidents that have taken place in several areas, one can interpret this not to be a free and fair election." Local monitoring organizations had already called the election "marred to a point that it does not reflect the will of the people." The Center for Monitoring Election Violence said in an interim report on Oct. 12: "By the close of voting on election day, we have received reports of serious election violations, including instances of murder, bombing, stuffing of ballot boxes, removal of ballot boxes, systematic impersonation and ballot rigging."

The Government denies the allegations. "There were problems in a few areas," said the General Secretary of the PA, Agriculture Minister D.M. Jayaratna. About 24 hours earlier, while voting was still taking place, Jayaratna had accused his party colleague, General Anurudha Ratwatta, of electoral malpractice in Kandy, the scene of some of the worst election violence. "This is not an election [in Kandy], it is fixed," he told journalists.

The Muslim NUA is demanding that President Kumaratunga take immediate disciplinary action against those responsible for the election violence. "Many have died. Countless have been injured because of this mindless violence," the NUA's Hakeem said. "Those who have been responsible for this have got to pay for it. That is the only way in which we can restore confidence in our democratic process. Unless the Government takes action to restore its own credibility, I don't think we can support the PA. This time they have to do something concrete and substantial to prove to the country and the world that they will not sweep it under the carpet as before."

The UNP has taken advantage of the popular and political backlash against the election violence, and is holding talks with all the other parties to form a broad coalition aimed at introducing democratic reforms. "The idea emerging from democratic forces is for a democratic alliance which of course is supported by civil society, the clergy and by most of the opposition parties," said UNP chairman Karu Jayasuriya. "There is a craving or a hunger for the establishment of democracy in this country. At least to ensure that there is rule of law, depoliticazation of society, [and] depoliticization of key government institutions like the public service and the Elections Commission."

The smaller political parties are also taking advantage of their new power in making or breaking governments by haggling for the best deal. The left wing People's Liberation Front, or JVP, which won 10 seats, has already said it would not support either of the two main parties. "We will support any formation from outside on the condition that it immediately implements democratic reforms in the country," said the JVP's Wimal Weerawansa.

The small minority Tamil parties will be important components in any coalition deal. They are the Tamil United Liberation Front, which won five seats, the Tamil Eelam Liberation Front with three seats, and the Tamil Congress with one seat. They are expected to demand immediate peace talks with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers in exchange for their support.

The 18-year-long civil war between Colombo and Tamil separatist fighters in the north and east of the country has been a dark shadow over the election. The government's war and peace strategy, including rewriting the Constitution to take into account Tamil grievances, was central to the campaign.

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