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Q+A-Sri Lanka’s parliamentary elections

[Reuters, Friday, 2 April 2010 10:39 No Comment]

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa campaigned in the northern city of Jaffna on Thursday, hoping to win support for his party from Tamil voters at a parliamentary election on April 8.

It was his second visit to the Tamil area since the government defeated Tamil Tiger separatists last year and ended one of Asia’s longest-running civil wars.

Here are some questions and answers about the election:

WHO IS TAKING PART?

A whopping 7,620 candidates representing 36 parties and 301 independent groups are vying for 225 seats. Of that group, 196 will be elected directly to parliament, with the remaining seats filled by parties based on their total vote percentages. Parliament can be an effective check on the presidency but Rajapaksa’s United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) is expected to retain its majority. Election monitors from the Commonwealth and some Asian countries are expected.

WHAT ARE THE PARTIES OFFERING VOTERS?

As at every election, all parties are offering jobs, increases in government handouts and rural and agricultural development plans. They differ little in substance.

WHY IS RAJAPAKSA CAMPAIGNING FOR A TWO-THIRDS MAJORITY?

His ruling alliance has its eyes on winning a two-thirds majority in the 225-seat legislature to give him the votes to amend the constitution to his liking.

WILL HE GET IT?

It’s hard to say since there is no reliable polling data. But history is against him: only once has any political party got more than 50 percent of the parliamentary vote since Sri Lanka adopted a proportional system of representation in 1978. Rajapaksa got 57.8 percent of the votes against challenger General Sarath Fonseka’s 40.2 percent at the Jan. 26 presidential election. Taking those figures as a guide theoretically would give Rajapaksa’s alliance roughly 120-125 seats and the combined opposition about 100-105. But turnover will play a role, and analysts say lower turnover favours the president’s candidates.

HOW STRONG IS THE OPPOSITION?

A diverse group of parties had backed Fonseka to try to capture the anti-Rajapaksa vote, and their cohesion has evaporated since the general was arrested Feb. 8 on charges of politicking while in uniform. Fonseka is nonetheless running for a parliamentary seat in the capital Colombo and most likely has the votes to win. The Supreme Court most likely would have to decide if he could retain his seat while in jail.

The two big parties behind him, the main opposition United National Party (UNP) and the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), share only one thing now: a pledge to free Fonseka if they win a parliamentary majority.

WHAT, IF ANY, IS THE TAMIL INFLUENCE?

The main Tamil coalition, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), also backed Fonseka but it struggled to get its voters out. The Tamil Tigers used to dictate who was elected in areas they controlled, so the TNA this time around is going to face competition from other Tamil parties and will likely lose some of its 22 seats. Overall, analysts expect Tamil parties to get around 20 seats, roughly proportional to the size of their minority population.

HOW ARE INVESTORS LOOKING AT THE VOTE?

The Colombo Stock Exchange <.CSE> has a habit of cooling off a bit before polls as local investors wait to see what happens and then buy in afterwards. But the market has generally shrugged off political noise given that even at its loudest, it is a huge improvement on the uncertainty and volatility nearly three decades of war brought.

The market is up 5.1 percent since the Jan. 26 polls — part of a surge that has seen it gain 154 percent since the end of 2008, when it turned from a multi-year low on optimism the government would defeat the Tamil Tigers.

After the victory in May, foreign investors began buying stocks and were net buyers in 2009, but this year, they have sold a net of 13.2 billion rupees ($115.7 million) worth of shares, suggesting they have cashed in on the surge.

Market players say Sri Lankan treasury securities, particularly those of 18 months’ maturity or shorter, remain in demand from foreign investors. The benchmark 91-day t-bill at auction on Tuesday had a yield of 8.52 percent. With the elections out of the way, traders say they expect demand to rise.

WHAT IS THE SCOPE FOR VIOLENCE?

Most of the violence has been intra-party as rivals vie for better position. One notable exception was a rock-throwing protest at the offices of the nation’s largest private broadcaster, ostensibly over sponsorship of a concert by R&B singer Akon, who appeared in a video which offended Buddhists. [ID:nSGE62M0KD] [ID:nSGE62N0DF]

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