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Surprise candidate leaves Sri Lankan poll wide open

[BBC, Monday, 25 January 2010 12:57 No Comment]

A recent cartoon depicts Gen Sarath Fonseka, at a lectern, declaiming "I promise to give you…"

But in the cartoon by Dharshana Karunathilake, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, on the opposite lectern, interrupts: "Whatever he promises, I promise to give you all those!"

It is a sign of how completely the dour, retired general has upset the previously monolithic Sri Lankan political scene and given voters a genuine choice.

Just three months ago, the president declared there would be presidential and parliamentary elections by April. There was little inkling that the then chief of staff would enter politics.

The election was expected to be a walkover for Mr Rajapaksa so weak did the opposition seem.

He had consolidated his power, sweeping a series of provincial elections held at staggered intervals to build on his huge popularity after the government defeated the Tamil Tigers and – in its words – "ended terrorism".

The post-war adulation of Mr Rajapaksa had scaled almost limitless heights. Politicians and columnists could be found saying that, with him at the helm, Sri Lanka had no further need of elections.

They hailed President Rajapaksa as a worthy successor to an ancient Sinhalese monarch who defeated a rival Tamil monarch – although the president distanced himself from such talk.

But suddenly there stormed on to the political scene another figure who could – and did – also say that HE "ended terrorism".

Bringing change

Sarath Fonseka complained he was sidelined and mistrusted by the president and his family, and in late November entered the presidential race.

A man usually photographed in uniform, almost scowling from under his cap, suddenly started appearing in a pious white outfit, smiling, palms clasped in a traditional greeting.

Always uneasy as a public speaker, Gen Fonseka created ripples of laughter at his inaugural press conference, telling journalists: "I’m at your mercy and you can start shooting."

For the Sinhalese majority – about three-quarters of the population – both candidates carry significant appeal.

Both candidates are steeped in Sinhalese nationalism and are desperate to win their allegiance.

Gen Fonseka was quoted in 2008 as saying that Sri Lanka "belongs to the Sinhalese" although minorities must also be treated "like our people".

Unfortunately this has been a violent and very personal campaign. The bitterness is perhaps all the greater because ideologically the pair are so similar.

President Rajapaksa’s side has attracted crowds of thousands to his rallies.

They are fenced in and watched by rows of stern police – this is Sri Lanka, after all – but there are fireworks, firecrackers and a triumphant mood as he and his supporters bellow out their message – that they deserve to win on the basis of the war victory, along with promises of prosperity and development.

His side has tried to capitalise on the fact that the Tamil National Alliance, a parliamentary group seen as close to the defeated Tamil Tigers, will support Gen Fonseka.

In a recent campaign speech, the president said a vote for Gen Fonseka would be a vote for terrorism and the break-up of the country.

One by one, from the podium, the president’s campaigners denounced the opposition figures, by name, as traitors.

Their message is that no-one else can take credit for the war triumph or be relied on to secure it.

Gen Fonseka has said he does not believe the war victory is "the entitlement of one family". He calls himself the bringer of change and clean politics.

‘King of our times’

Most Sinhalese people you talk to seem to have decided which way they will vote, and they are very much split.

One Rajapaksa supporter told the BBC: "He is the king of our times because he led the country to a victory against the terrorism which was there for more than three decades."

But one woman voter said Gen Fonseka would win because prices of staples were rising and "we want a change". She said there had been none of the promised development since the war and felt the best person to bring change was the retired general.

Most Sinhalese are devout Buddhists. In recent years, many Buddhist monks have become politicised, vocally supporting the recent war effort. A party dominated by monks is part of the governing coalition.

But the holy men are split on whom to support. Some have come out in favour of Gen Fonseka, and some have voiced concern at the many reports of violence and election malpractice.

At the Srinagar temple in Kotte near Colombo, the chief priest, the Venerable Maduluvave Sobitha, appealed for reason.

"We ask all candidates to remember the religion of compassion we have learnt as a race over the past 1,000 years. We must respect all candidates, their parties, their supporters and their views," he told the BBC.

It is true that minority Tamil and Muslim votes will count in this election.

[Full Coverage]

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