Asia-Pacific, Headlines

POLITICS-SRI LANKA: Local Poll Win A Big Victory For President

Feizal Samath

COLOMBO, Apr 7 1999 (IPS) - Sri Lanka’s ruling party Wednesday swept past the opposition in regional council elections, seen as a crucial test for President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s government, winning in all the five regions.

However with the main opposition United National Party (UNP) improving on its poll performance, most political analysts predict that Kumaratunga would call for early general elections this year to take advantage of the government’s popularity.

Presidential and parliamentary polls are not due until mid- and late-2000, while the last in the series of provincial council elections – the southern region – is due in May-June and is also expected to be clinched by the ruling party.

Polls to the northeast council, controlled by former militant Tamil groups, have been postponed over the years due to the ethnic unrest.

In Tuesday’s voting, the ruling People’s Alliance (PA) won the Western, North Central, Central, Uva and Sabaragamuwa provincial councils. They won the bulk of the 263 seats in the five councils. The UNP lost by narrow margins in some districts.

“With such a good showing, I believe President Kumaratunga may call an early presidential election,” said a government economist, who wished to remain anonymous. “She may call it as early at August this year.”

A newspaper editor noted that with the UNP’s performance improving over that at local government elections in 1997, when it was routed by the PA, the government may be tempted to gamble on early presidential and parliamentary elections.

“It would be in the government’s interest to hold early elections since in another six months to a year, the UNP can improve on Tuesday’s performance. Also in a straight presidential race, President Kumaratunga is still a much more favoured candidate than UNP leader Ranil Wickremasinghe,” he said.

Analysts say that Kumaratunga, though mired in problems, was able to single-handedly secure victory for the party in this round of elections. “She is much more charismatic leader and more firm than Wickremasinghe and that appears to be the key to the PA’s success,” one analyst noted.

Another reason for the government to favour an early poll could be the weakening Sri Lankan economy, which has not recovered from the financial collapse in East Asia. A further blow has been the crash in world tea prices.

Prices of tea, Sri Lanka’s biggest export commodity, have been drastically hit by the Russian financial crisis while a general global downturn has affected the export-driven garment manufacturing sector.

Equally worrying is the plunging price of world oil prices for Sri Lanka. Remittances from Sri Lankan expatriates in the Gulf Arab countries are an important source of foreign exchange and declining oil prices could shrink earnings.

Political observers think that Kumaratunga may use a victory in the civil war in the north and the east, where government troops are trying to contain a 17-year-long separatist revolt by Tamil guerrillas, before deciding on early polls.

But political scientist Jayadeva Uyangoda thinks otherwise. “I don’t think there is any reason for her to call early polls because the trends clearly show that the PA is popular. She would stay on till the end,” the University of Colombo professor said.

Uyangoda said the results also proved that violence and intimidation of voters did not affect the ultimate outcome of an election.

According to election monitors, there were sporadic incidents of violence and vote rigging in the five provinces but they also admitted that it was not as widespread as the Northwest provincial election in January this year.

Those polls were also won handsomely by the PA but came amidst allegations of large-scale rigging, stuffing of ballots and unprecedented violence. Two people were killed in the run-up to the Jan. 25 contest while election monitors recorded more than 800 complaints of intimidation, violence and other illegal acts.

Prominent citizens including top Buddhists, Catholic and Muslim priests, outraged by the level of violence, called for a fresh poll. An embarrassed Sri Lankan president quickly appointed an all-party elections monitoring committee.

Though the main opposition party has complained that the government failed to implement many of the decisions of the committee, there were fewer complaints.

Election Commissioner Dayananda Dissanayake said that there were two serious incidents in the central town of Kandy and the north central town of Anuradhapura of stuffing of ballot boxes. Police said other incidents reported were of a trivial nature.

Tuesday’s results also ran contrary to the perception of urban voters of Colombo that the popularity of the government was on the wane. Even in the affluent Colombo district – part of the Western province – the UNP won only one seat more than the ruling party, even though it was predicted to sweep the province.

 
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