Tue, 10 Oct 2000

Sri Lankans to vote under emergency

By Amal Jayasinghe

COLOMBO (AFP): Sri Lanka will vote in parliamentary elections held under tough emergency laws even as Tamil rebels remain locked in combat with government forces.

Balloting is due to get underway on Tuesday to elect the 11th parliament since independence from Britain amid a campaign marred by violence which has claimed at least 58 lives.

For the first time in recent years, the election is being conducted under tough emergency laws which give sweeping powers to police and security forces to arrest and detain suspects.

"We have taken all precautions to prevent suicide bombings," said Colombo's police chief Bodi Liyanage. Two such suicide bombings this month against election meetings have killed a total of 35 people.

Fears of more bombings kept people away from the parties' final campaign rallies on Saturday night.

Opposition parties say apart from Tamil rebel-related attacks, there has been an upsurge in other violence.

Apart from violence, early on the campaign took a bizarre twist when the ruling party reported the chief elections commissioner Dayanda Dissanayake to the human rights commission.

The ruling People's Alliance (PA) said the commissioner's attempt to prevent electoral malpractice and vote rigging somehow violated the rights of a ruling party candidate.

The case was withdrawn amid mounting public criticism and remarks by European Election monitors that they fully supported the commissioner's bid to ensure a free and fair election.

The opposition Sunday said they were satisfied with measures taken by the election chief to minimize ballot rigging.

The focus shifted to Tamil Tiger rebels as the campaign progressed, even though they are not taking part, as the ruling party tried to link the separatists to the main opposition United National Party (UNP).

The UNP in turn accused the government of launching a smear campaign and focused on the ruling party's handling of the economy as well as the war against the rebels.

"The economy was the main issue," opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe said after addressing some 105 rallies during the five-week campaign.

Wickremesinghe argues the economy should be strong to sustain a war against the rebels and accuses Kumaratunga's PA of poor economic management.

Kumaratunga for her part vows a "no holds barred" military campaign against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam who are fighting for a Tamil homeland.

She says the economy has suffered because of heavy military expenditure which accounts for nearly 6 percent of the country's gross domestic product, or nearly a third of government revenue.

Kumaratunga says a vote for her PA on Tuesday will be a vote for a "complete package" to escalate the war against the rebels and revive the economy.

The president who came to power in 1994 promising peace is now offering war. However, she says she will also press ahead with a controversial power-sharing plan to win over the minority Tamils and marginalise Tiger rebels.

"The devolution package should have been given 52 years ago (at the time of independence from Britain)," Kumaratunga said.

Her pushing the power-sharing plan may not go down well with the majority Sinhalese community. The influential Buddhist clergy opposes the plan which seeks to turn the country into a de facto federal state.

The Tamil Tigers too oppose the plan, saying it does not go far enough.

The opposition UNP says it will first try to reduce the conflict and evolve a plan acceptable to all. That is easier said than done in a country where more than 60,000 people have been killed in the decades-old conflict.

With opinion polls placing the PA and UNP neck and neck, the Marxist JVP, or People's Liberation Front, and minority Tamil parties are expected to play a key role in the event of a hung parliament.

There has been no end the promises made to the 12.07 million electorate as politicians try to win votes.

Kumaratunga announced last month she would grant a hefty 1,000 rupee (US$12) salary increase to all public servants. Not to be outdone, the opposition has offered to double the increase.

Both parties are promising to revise an unpopular goods and services tax. The government has also resisted pressure to raise fuel prices ahead of the election despite the escalation in global oil prices.

Whoever wins, price shocks may come soon after the elections.