Sri Lankan hard-liners leading in early returns

Power shift could derail troubled talks with rebels

April 04, 2004|By Paul Watson | Paul Watson,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NEW DELHI - Sri Lankan hard-liners opposed to sweeping concessions to Tamil rebels appeared to have gained the upper hand in national elections, according to preliminary results released yesterday.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga called early elections in hopes of breaking a political stalemate over negotiations with the guerrillas. But the close results could end up prolonging the standoff, or destroying the peace process altogether.

With around two-thirds of ballots counted last night, neither incumbent Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe nor Kumaratunga's United People's Freedom Alliance were headed for an outright majority in the 225-seat Parliament.

The president's alliance had received just more than 47 percent of the vote, while the prime minister's party had more than 37 percent.

The preliminary figures indicate that supporters of Kumaratunga, who opposed the prime minister's concessions to the rebels, will likely form the next government, analyst Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu said in a telephone interview.

Kumaratunga's alliance seems poised to receive between 104 and 106 seats, and could form a coalition government with smaller parties, said Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Center for Policy Alternatives, a leading Sri Lankan think tank.

The president's alliance said it would try to form a government.

The election commissioner said no more results would be released until today. Final returns aren't expected for at least a week, until voters go back to the polls in two districts where election officials ordered a revote after allegations of fraud.

The fate of peace talks, which are suspended, is complicated further by a deep split in the ranks of the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The Tigers are demanding a homeland for the minority Tamils within a decentralized Sri Lanka.

The Tigers' eastern commander, Vinayagamoorthy Muraleetharan, better known to Sri Lankans as Colonel Karuna, recently turned against guerrilla leader Vellupillai Prabhakharan, who has a reputation for ruthlessly crushing dissent.

Karuna, considered one of the Tigers' best military strategists, said before Friday's election that he wanted to sign a separate peace with the government. He also declared that Prabhakharan can't win a war without him because the east supplies most of the Tigers' guerrillas.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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