Tuesday, November 22, 2005

NY Times on the Sri Lankan Election

November 18, 2005

Battered by War, Sri Lankans Elect Hawkish President By SOMINI SENGUPTA

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, Nov. 18 -Mahinda Rajapakse, the Sri Lankan prime minister who spent his campaign for president honing a hawk's reputation, narrowly won the race today, raising new questions about how this island nation, beset by more than 20 years of civil war, would achieve peace. Election officials in Sri Lanka this afternoon declared Mr. Rajapakse the winner of Thursday's presidential election with 50.29 percent of the vote, as his supporters chanted "patriot" outside the election department headquarters here in the capital. His chief rival, the former Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, captured 48.4 percent of the vote, according to official results.

Known for his more accommodating view of the peace process with the nation's Tamil separatist rebels, Mr. Wickremesinghe appeared to have suffered in part from a near no-show at polls in Jaffna, the northern town with the country's largest population of ethnic minority Tamils. Election officials declined to authorize fresh polls there, as Mr. Wickremesinghe demanded, his campaign office said.

Most startling, the election appeared to have been deftly manipulated by a force that was absent from the contest itself: the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the ethnic separatist group that has fought for an independent Tamil nation for 22 years..

On one hand, the crimes the Tamil Tigers are accused of - including the assassination of Sri Lanka's foreign minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, last August appeared to have pushed many Sinhalese, the majority ethnic group, into the arms of the hard-line Mr. Rajapakse.

On the other hand, as election monitors in the largely Tamil north and east pointed out, violence and intimidation by Tamil Tiger supporters kept Tamil voters, believed to be a crucial base of support for Mr. Wickremesinghe, from going to the polls.

In other words, the Tamil Tigers, without issuing a formal boycott of polls, seem to have rearranged the political map and helped install a president whose leadership makes the resumption of conflict far more likely - at least if his election promises are to be believed.

A longtime left-of-center politician, Mr. Rajapakse has vowed to scrap a 2002 peace pact with the Tamil Tigers to draft a new one, and has resisted the idea of allowing them any form of local autonomy. He has also rejected an accord, struck after months of negotiation, to share tsunami reconstruction money with the rebels, who operate as a de facto government in the territory they control.

Last December's disaster killed more than 30,000 people on the island, and the joint financing arrangement was seen as the first step towards a lasting reconciliation. Parts of the accord were struck down by the country's Supreme Court last August.

"I will bring about an honorable peace to the country, respecting all communities," Mr. Rajapakse told a news conference after the official announcement.

No sooner had Mr. Rajapakse claimed victory than Sri Lankan stock prices posted their steepest drop in 18 months, with the Colombo All-Share Index falling 6.9 percent Mr. Rajapakse, who joined hands with the country's leading Marxist and Sinhalese nationalist forces, was elected on a platform of economic nationalization. He will be sworn in on Saturday.

The fate of the peace process depends in large part on how Mr. Rajapakse handles the Tamil Tigers once he becomes president. He has promised direct talks with their leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, but told voters that he would not meet their main demand: power-sharing.

"If he approaches it as he stated during the elections, then the future of the peace process is very bleak," Jehan Perera of the National Peace Council, a nonpartisan advocacy group, said. "There is still hope that he will take the peace process forward on a footing that is different from what he said in the election campaign."

Mr. Wickremesinghe, who crafted the peace accord that Mr. Rajapakse has vowed to revamp, had said he was amenable to a federal solution giving greater autonomy to the country's Tamil minority in the north and east.

The vice-chairman of his United National Party, Daya Pelpola, today blamed the Tamil Tigers for Mr. Wickremesinghe's defeat. "Had we had a free and fair election, we would say the results would be very, very different," he said.

Equally important in the coming weeks is Mr. Prabhakaran's reaction. It remains unclear whether Mr. Rajapakse's victory will embolden the Tamil Tigers, a feared guerrilla group that commands a fleet of ground, sea and air forces, to turn up the volume on their aggression. Mr. Prabhakaran is expected to make his annual address at the end of the month,

The Tamil Tigers did not have to call for a boycott of the polls. Turnout figures released today spoke volumes for their influence. No polling stations could be set up in their territory.

In Jaffna, officially in government hands but heavily influenced by the Tamil Tigers, barely 1.2 percent of the more than 700,000 voters turned out to the polls. In eastern Batticaloa, also a largely Tamil town where the Tamil Tigers are challenged by a breakaway faction, voter turnout was 48.5 percent. In both areas, Mr. Wickremesinghe scored 70 percent or more of the vote.

The election ends the rule of President Chandrika Kumaratunga, whose attempt to extend her tenure was struck down by the country's highest court last August.

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