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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 April, 2004, 17:07 GMT 18:07 UK
Sri Lanka's leaders face voter anger

By Soutik Biswas
BBC correspondent in Colombo

On the eve of one of Sri Lanka's most crucial elections in recent times, PMK Mulawathi, a resident of the capital, Colombo, says she can no longer understand what is going on in her country.

"Everything is in a flux. Elections are held every other year. Politicians seem to be least bothered with what people are thinking," says Mrs Mulawathi, who runs a small shop near the main city railway station.

PMK Mulawathi
PMK Mulawathi voices widespread disillusionment with Sri Lanka's politicians

A number of voters echo her sentiment in a troubled nation which is preparing to go to its third parliamentary poll in four years.

"There seems to be a total disconnect between the people and the government. We are very angry with our squabbling and corrupt politicians," says Jude Fernando, a Colombo housewife.

'Mutual slandering'

Even the 280 monks who have gathered together under the National Heritage Party to contest the elections for the first time seem to be irate with the politicians.

Come, join me to take the country to permanent peace and happiness
President Kumaratunga

"If the mutual slandering [among politicians] that's going on is true, shouldn't they be sent to jail, and not to the parliament?" screams one of the party's election advertisements.

That is possibly one reason why the local newspapers are full of big, flashy advertisements of candidates seeking votes with some very ingenious - and basic - appeals.

One candidate describes himself as the "preference of intelligent patriots". Another claims he is "intelligent, straightforward, honest and efficient".

Another candidate warns that this election could make or break the country.

"The decisive moment is near," he says in his campaign pitch.

"How we cast our vote will determine the future of our children. We could either go back to the dark ages or we could march forward."

'Critical juncture'

But analysts like Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu believe that though every election in Sri Lanka is important, this one is happening when the country is at an "extremely critical juncture".

Police in Colombo
As usual the police are out in force for the elections

For one, there is the issue of resolving the two-decades-old conflict with the Tamil Tigers in which more than 60,000 people have died.

A ceasefire with the rebels has sustained for the past two years, but the peace process remains tenuous.

Its fragility has been exacerbated by the bitter differences between the president and the prime minister on how to pursue it - one reason this poll was called early.

Then there are challenges on the economic front.

The country will need some painful economic reform to boost its 5% growth rate, and create more jobs to cut down a nearly 10% unemployment rate in a nation of 19 million.

There is also the creeping inflation, running at around 7%.

This is angering a lot of people more than a raging double-digit inflation two years ago, simply because peace has given them more time to think about bread and butter issues.

This election is also a watershed in more ways than one.

The arrival of the Buddhist clergy in mainstream politics calling for a return to the country's Buddhist heritage points to the disillusionment of people with mainstream politicians.

Also, the rebels' north-based leadership's avowed position as the sole and unchallenged representative of the country's Tamil people has been seriously challenged by a split in the party's eastern wing.

'Eastern tension'

A breakaway leader, Colonel Karuna, has taken an estimated 6,000 of the estimated 15,000-strong rebel movement with him.

He has complained that the east of Sri Lanka was not being represented by the rebel's north-based leaders.

There is tension in the east ahead of the elections with reports about Tamils from the north residing there leaving their homes.

Ballot box delivery
Police guard the delivery of ballot papers in the capital

All the five political murders in the run up to the elections were all reported from the east.

Analysts believe that by "raising the flag of regionalism", Colonel Karuna's revolt could have significant implications.

Some argue that in the long-term the government and the northern leadership of the Tamil Tigers may be forced to talk to him.

"There are new realities for Sri Lanka. It has to move away from a political culture wedded to a unitary state and majoritarian democracy to a truly federal, power-sharing system," says Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu.

"For example, you have to take Karuna as a new actor in the peace process, you have to deal with him, both the government and the northern leadership."

The two main election rivals believe that the elections are basically a referendum on making peace with the rebels.

"Come, join me to take the country to permanent peace and happiness," said President Chandrika Kumaratunga at the final rally of the campaign for United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) coalition, that includes her People's Alliance and the former left-wing revolutionaries of the JVP (People's Liberation Front).

"The temporary absence of war is not permanent peace," she said alluding to the two-year-old ceasefire and the tenuous thaw with the rebels.

Her main rival, Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe, who leads the pro-business United National Front says: "People of this country want peace to build a new country. They are not ready to ruin their future and freedom. We want peace to build a new country."

A number of analysts are predicting a hung parliament with no single party being able to get past the simple majority of 130 seats.

"The big question then is who will cobble together a parliament," wonders Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu.

He reckons that Mr Wickramasinghe-led UNF coalition will have an edge in forming a coalition with the support of the Tamil Nationalist Alliance, the party which supports the political aims of the Tamil Tiger rebels.

"Whoever comes to power, I hope this time they turn their attention to the people. We have been neglected for too long," says Jude Fernando.

Friday's vote will give some indication of how neglected and let down they feel by the parties they have supported.

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