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Record 22 candidates to contest Sri Lanka polls

[Reuters, Thursday, 17 December 2009 10:51 No Comment]

Sri Lanka’s election commissioner on Thursday accepted a record 22 nominations for the January presidential poll, in which economic policies, and not war strategy, are expected to dominate the campaign.

The candidates for the Jan. 26 poll include incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his former army chief, Gen. Sarath Fonseka, who led the military to victory over Tamil rebels after a 25-year civil war.

Successive governments have won national polls promising to end the war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, while blaming the conflict for any failure to implement economic and political reforms.

About 14 million of the island nation’s 21 million population are eligible to vote.

"This election is not going to focus on critical issues like the economy and constitutional reforms," Rohan Edrisinha, a political analyst and a constitutional law lecturer at the University of Colombo, told Reuters.

"Both candidate cannot come up with strong policies as their coalition partners would get upset."

Fonseka has talked about ending corruption and abolishing the powerful executive presidency, while Rajapaksa in his campaign has focused on post-war peace and development, without giving any specific policies on how he would achieve that.

Rajapaksa, who called the elections two years before his term expires as he tries to take credit for ending the way, is backed by the United People’s Freedom Alliance, which includes business groups and some minority parties.

Analysts expect Rajapaksa to try to woo voters with public-sector wage hikes and subsidies, but he will be constrained by the conditions attached to a $2.6-billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.

DIVERSE COALITIONS

Fonseka is supported by the two main opposition parties, the pro-business United National Party (UNP) and the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peremuna (JVP), whose economic policies are at opposite ends of the spectrum.

The main Tamil party, which had earlier backed Tamil Tiger rebels before they were wiped out in a May military offensive, has not announced who it would support, though analysts say they would lean to Fonseka over Mahinda as minorities have more confidence in the UNP.

Tamils make up almost 12 percent of Sri Lanka’s population, and unlike past elections where the LTTE discouraged them from going to the polls, they could emerge as a key swing vote.

Both the UNP and JVP have said their main aim is to defeat Rajapaksa and then later to focus on other issues.

"If Fonseka wins, he will have a better economic policy as he is backed by the UNP," said Sirimal Abeyratne, a senior economics lecturer at University of Colombo.

"But it depends on his political strength and influence of the JVP. If Rajapaksa wins he has to undertake some bold reforms to revive the economy, but he needs a strong government."

Economists said Rajapaksa’s past populist policies such the provision of subsidies, high government expenditure and bloated state jobs have created fiscal pressures.

Successive Sri Lankan governments have delayed both economic and political reform, bowing to the pressure of coalition partners aiming to win elections. But the IMF loan comes with conditions aimed at curbing those kinds of pressures.

Investor confidence in the $40-billion economy has surged, attracting foreign investment into government debt and both listed and unlisted companies due to investor hopes of a rapid economic recovery after the war.

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