A poll for peace?

FORCED to the polling stations for the third time in four years, many Sri Lankans may find it hard to avoid a sense of wariness as they cast their ballots.

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Published: Fri 2 Apr 2004, 12:50 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 1:02 AM

That, however, does not diminish the importance of Friday's parliamentary elections. The outcome will set the course for the island's peace process with the Tamil Tigers. According to a latest opinion survey, President Chandrika Kumaratunga's party is set to win 110 of the 225 parliamentary seats at stake. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's party is likely to garner between 90 and 95 seats. The logical result would be a hung parliament, which in turn would force the victor to make deals with the smaller parties. Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe are at loggerheads over the Norwegian-backed attempts to end Sri Lanka's three-decade-long civil conflict. Voters will have to decide who is best qualified to pursue the peace process. Wickremesinghe, who opened the peace talks with the Tamil Tigers in 2002, projects himself as that person. Kumaratunga, who survived an assassination attempt by the rebels in 1999 after her own peace moves faltered, believes the prime minister has given the rebels far too many concessions. Friday's parliamentary election, taking place three years ahead of schedule, is a result of a power struggle that peaked in November when the president took command of three powerful ministries under the premier's control.

With the Sinhalese vote expected to split between Kumaratunga's and Wickremesinghe's parties, Sri Lanka's Tamils may end up holding the balance of power. The Tamil Tigers, confronted with the defection of a powerful commander and 6,000 supporters last month, have thrown up a key imponderable. Although the Tigers are backing candidates put up by the Tamil National Alliance, it is unclear how the split in their ranks would influence the results. What is clear, however, is the heavy cost Sri Lanka is paying for continued political bickering. The tourism industry, which is one of the biggest foreign exchange earners for the country, is hit hard.

Diminishing profitability has discouraged foreign investment the country so urgently needs. At a wider level, the $4.5 billion pledged at a donor conference in Japan last year will remain on hold until the peace process gathers substantial momentum. Fortunately, the ceasefire has not succumbed to the bitter hostilities between the president and premier. It would be utterly reckless for Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe to view that as an eternal reality.

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