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Tamils a force in Sri Lankan polls

[Reuters, Monday, 4 January 2010 16:51 No Comment]

The upcoming Sri Lankan polls will present more unknowns than usual.

Most critically, during the war years, the minority Tamils tended to boycott elections.

But with the Tamil Tiger rebels finally defeated, that is unlikely this time, making them an important voting bloc.

President Mahinda Rajapakse is seeking re-election in this month’s elections, challenged by former army chief Sarath Fonseka, who led the military to victory in the 25-year war against the Tigers.

The main Tamil party, the Tamil National Alliance – once backed by the Tigers – is expected to announce its stance on the election today.

Analysts say Tamils in the lowlands, concentrated especially in the north and accounting for almost 12 per cent of the population, will probably lean towards Mr Fonseka, already backed by the minority-friendly opposition United National Party.

Mr Fonseka said last Saturday he would relax tight security measures and create a conducive environment for business. He has also said high-security zones will be removed in the north and war-displaced people, mostly Tamils, will be resettled swiftly.

Tamils in Sri Lanka’s highlands – their ancestors brought in from India by the British before independence to work on tea plantations and with concerns not always meshing with their ethnic brethren’s – are about 5 per cent of the population and are thought to be divided evenly between Mr Fonseka and Mr Rajapakse.

Both these candidates – the field is a crowded one with more than 20 vying for the top post – are to release their manifestos within the next week.

Mr Rajapakse is expected to announce an updated version of the manifesto he presented in the 2005 election, with special emphasis on post-war infrastructure development, high growth, and eliminating poverty.

Mr Fonseka, backed by a coalition of groups with markedly different ideological outlooks, is expected to come up with a common minimum programme agreed by all his partners.

It is expected to strongly emphasise eliminating corruption and wastage in the economy and slashing executive powers vested in the presidency.

On a post-war political solution for a sustainable peace – important if the country is to attract long-term investment and aid – Mr Rajapakse is likely to be vague, as he must satisfy extremists in his coalition.

Mr Fonseka is expected to be clearer as his coalition partners have agreed on a solution involving significant conciliatory gestures towards the Tamils.

There could also be crossovers, which are common in Sri Lankan politics.

Analysts say more legislators probably will defect from Mr Rajapakse than from Mr Fonseka, as the former army chief has been able to shift voters towards him despite strong state media backing for Mr Rajapakse.

This could in turn spark even more of the electorate to switch and increase Mr Fonseka’s chances.

Trying to garner support, the government – which did not reduce prices of essential goods and petrol in the past – slashed their prices last month.

Some say these cuts could backfire if the public sees them as transparent election gimmicks.

However, Mr Fonseka has now promised big financial benefits in terms of salary hikes and transfer payments.

Mr Rajapakse, meanwhile, pledges massive infrastructure projects.

Whoever wins may find it difficult to deliver, given Sri Lanka’s commitment, linked to an International Monetary Fund loan, to reduce expenditures to achieve a challenging budget deficit target of 6 per cent of GDP this year.

Who will win?

[Full Coverage]

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