Division and disgust over Lanka polls

Sri Lanka’s future rests precariously on the outcome of the November 17 presidential elections. Though a three-and-a-half year truce between the government and separatist Tamil Tigers has held since February 2002, negotiations stalled in April 2003, when the latter pulled out. Relations between the two sides have been on the slide after the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) government took office in April 2004 and have come close to ending several times.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have criticised the government for helping a rebellion launched by renegade separatist commander Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan, alias Karuna.

Observers say there is very little likelihood of any progress in the talks before the polls. The election announcement seriously diminished chances of meetings between the two parties, Muttukrishna Sarvananthan, a researcher who has worked extensively in Tiger-held areas in the north and east, said. Momentum for discussions was further weakened by elections in Norway. Chief peace envoy Erik Solheim had taken leave from Sri Lanka’s process to concentrate on campaigning at home when the Kadirgamar assassination took place.

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse has made pacts with hardline southern parties like the People’s Liberation Front (PLF) and the Buddhist monk-led Jathika Hela Urumaya.

Rajapakse’s main rival, opposition leader Ranil Wickremasinghe, has said he would recommence negotiations with the Tigers and try to seek a permanent settlement based on a federal power-sharing mechanism. Unlike Rajapakse, Wickremasinghe has said he would also push ahead with economic liberalisation.

‘’The battle lines are now drawn,’’ PLF leader Somawansha Amarasinghe said. However the opposition leader received an unexpected boost to his campaign from the donors when they tacitly endorsed the federal based solution. Rajapakse has blamed his ‘war candidate’ tag on bad press and said he is willing to go the extra mile to achieve peace. However his proximity to hawks resisting power sharing has already alienated minority Tamil parties. MP Suresh Premachandran from the pro-Tiger Tamil National Alliance said that though the party had not reached any conclusions, the alliance was likely to support the candidate pushing for power sharing based on federalism.

The Tigers have remained outside the fray so far, but can exert influence at the polls by controlling the participation of voters in areas under their control on Election Day.

The Wickremasinghe-led UNP launched public protests earlier in the year demanding that elections be held in 2005. Those protests were fuelled by Kumaratunga’s stand that her term extended to 2006 due to a secret oath-taking ceremony. The UNP gathered nearly 500,000 protestors in the capital Colombo weeks before the Supreme Court cleared the way for the November polls. Kumaratunga’s tirade against Rajapakse after his deal with the PLF has only added to the ordinary voter’s disgust. The elections might just be a teaser. Wickremasinghe has already indicated that if he wins the race, he will dissolve parliament and call for fresh parliamentary polls. — IPS