Sri Lanka leader’s bloc is the favorite

Reporting from Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and Colombo, Sri Lanka -- President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ruling coalition is expected to secure an easy victory in Thursday’s parliamentary elections, the first since the government quashed the Tamil Tiger insurgency and ended an often brutal quarter-century-long war.

But the vote may only mask continuing problems securing national reconciliation between the Tamil minority and the majority Sinhalese population, as well as quarrels among top Sinhalese leaders, analysts said.

Rajapaksa won reelection in January as president, defeating former army commander Sarath Fonseka, who was widely credited with directing the strategy that finally won the war. Within weeks, Fonseka was arrested and charged by the government with conspiring to assassinate Rajapaksa and seize power. Fonseka’s court-martial, now underway, has been protested by the opposition and human rights groups, who accuse the government of retaliating against a leader who dared challenge the incumbent president.

Despite the conflicts, Sri Lankan stocks hit a record high just days ago, and Rajapaksa has exuded confidence, hoping to win an elusive two-thirds majority in the 225-seat Parliament. But such a crowning victory would be difficult to achieve under an electoral system that tends to work against pronounced political concentration.

“If voting is fair, getting a two-thirds majority is almost impossible,” said human rights lawyer Mario Gomez.

In a system that already grants extensive power to the president, a two-thirds majority would allow him to change the constitution without worrying too much about gaining public consensus.

“It will be very worrying if the [ruling coalition] wins the two-thirds majority,” said constitutional law expert Rohan Edrisinha. “I think that is very dangerous for democracy in the country.”

During several weeks of campaigning, Sri Lanka’s ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance coalition, or UPFA, has marketed the country as “The Next Asian Miracle.” It has also nominated for parliamentary seats some of Sri Lanka’s luminaries, including a famous cricketer, an Olympic silver medalist and actresses, many without political experience.

The opposition has promised to prevent the ruling party from gaining more power and is trying to woo voters with a pledge to lower costs and boost salaries. Thus far, though, it has provided few details.

The main opposition coalitions are demoralized and beset by internal conflict after getting trounced in the presidential election. In the wake of the defeat in May of the Tamil Tigers, who were seeking a Tamil homeland in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, Rajapaksa was reelected in January with 58% of the vote. Fonseka won 40%.

Though he is sitting in jail, Fonseka is running for a parliamentary seat, with his wife campaigning on his behalf. Even if he were to win on a sympathy vote, it is unlikely he would be able to enter Parliament.

A dizzying 7,620 candidates are battling for 196 seats. It is the first general election in decades to be held in all districts, including areas formerly controlled by the Tigers, known formally as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

“Now we are free,” said Veemapody Nallathamby, an 86-year-old farmer from the former Tiger-controlled village of Kannankuda. “The control of both sides, the LTTE and the government, is not there.”

Some remain skeptical, however, that the government is committed to resolving the ethnic conflict between Tamils and Sinhalese.

“As a Tamil, I’m not very happy about the way the government is behaving because there’s no serious measure taken by the government to solve the ethnic issue,” said Shanmugam Senthurajah, a development consultant working in the Batticaloa region, a Tamil area.

Analysts expect voter turnout to be low in the Tamil-heavy north and east even though a lot is at stake.

“A more moderate government might address the ethnic conflict and address the root causes,” legal expert Edrisinha said.

Others see hope that Rajapaksa might address ethnic reconciliation for economic reasons.

“The Tamil issue is getting sidelined,” said R. Hariharan, a retired Indian military intelligence specialist who served in Sri Lanka between 1987 and 1990.

“But I feel he will take it up on his own terms more to satisfy India. He needs India for economic recovery.”


Herath is a special correspondent.