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Sri Lanka on brink of fresh violence after controversial election

[Times Online UK, Tuesday, 26 January 2010 20:52 No Comment]

Eight months after the Tamil Tigers’ defeat, Sri Lanka stood on the brink of a new and potentially violent political confrontation after the government challenged the legitimacy of the main opposition candidate in today’s presidential election.

The poll was a bitterly contested duel between Mahinda Rajapaksa, the incumbent President, and Sarath Foneska, the former army chief who led the campaign against the Tigers before resigning and joining the opposition.

The final result is expected tomorrow, and most analysts say it is too close to call as the two men, who both claim credit for beating the Tigers, have split the vote of the Sinhalese ethnic majority and had mixed results appealing to minority Tamils.

Tonight, however, the Government appeared to hedge its bets by announcing that it would challenge General Fonseka’s right to stand in the election because he was not registered to vote.

“We are seeking a court order on the suitability of this candidate because he is not eligible to be declared as a candidate,” Rohitha Bogollagama, the Foreign Minister, told reporters.

“We are not saying that he will emerge the winner. We are confident we will win, but we want the court to rule on his candidacy.” Just before polls closed, General Fonseka had indeed announced that he could not vote because his name was not on the electoral list.

He accused the Government of playing a dirty trick, and said he had sent the necessary documents to be registered when the last electoral roll was compiled in June 2008.

Dayananda Dissanayake, the independent Elections Commissioner, had already backed the General’s candidacy earlier in the day, responding to suggestions from the ruling party’s legislators that he could be disqualified.

“Not having one’s name on the electoral list is not a disqualification,” Mr Dissanayake said in a statement.

But Mr Bogollagama said that was merely “an opinion” and was open to legal challenge.

His announcement was a stunning new twist in an election already tainted by the killing of four people during campaigning, and a series of bombings and other violent incidents in northern Tamil areas today.

It also means that whichever side loses, it will be ready to challenge the result, with the opposition citing massive abuse of state resources, especially state media.

“As far as the result goes, I still think it might be very close,” said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu of the Centre for Policy Alternatives.

“The losers are no doubt going to point to the violence and the other problems in the system. The question is whether they can galvanise public support behind them.”

With the Sinhalese vote split, much will depend on how Sri Lanka’s 2.5 million Tamils voted. General Fonseka is backed by the Tamil National Alliance, the largest Tamil party, which says he has promised to address Tamil grievances, and is the only one who can oust Mr Rajapaksa.

Many Tamils appear to agree, especially those among the 300,000 who were detained in internment camps after the war’s end.

“It’s not a good choice, but for us Fonseka is the only choice,” Sriram Subramanian, a 31-year-old Tamil driver in Colombo, told The Times.

But some Tamils say they could never vote for either of the men they blame for alleged war crimes in the last stages of the war, including shelling innocent Tamil civilians.

Monitors said activists in Jaffna had distributed leaflets, signed by a previously unknown group called Tamil Patriots, urging Tamils to boycott the poll. “Our people should not permit the sacrifices of our warriors to go to waste,” the leaflets said.

Many others in the north did not vote because they were afraid of violence, unable to register, or had no transport to reach polling stations.

Turnout in Jaffna was also depleted by a series of pre-dawn bomb blasts, including one at the house of an activist for Mr Rajapaksa’s party.

The Centre for Monitoring Election Violence estimated turnout at 20 percent in the Tamil-dominated north, and 80 per cent in the Sinhalese-majority south.

The Rajapaksa camp said that bode well for his campaign, as most of his supporters are from the rural south.

“We will have a great victory,” he told reporters after casting his ballot. “We must be ready to face the challenges of reaching new heights after this vote.”

Later, however, the opposition made it clear that General Fonseka was not ready to accept defeat, despite being unable to vote.

“This was a desperate last attempt to turn the tide and it has not succeeded,” said Ranil Wickremasinghe, an opposition leader.

[Full Coverage]

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