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Last Updated: Friday, 26 August 2005, 12:38 GMT 13:38 UK
What now for Sri Lanka?

By Dumeetha Luthra
BBC correspondent, Colombo

Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse
Kumaratunga has to step aside but may retain her influence
The Supreme Court's ruling that Sri Lanka's presidential elections must be held before the end of the year has ended months of wrangling.

It's a bitter defeat for outgoing President Chandrika Kumaratunga - but is not necessarily the end of her career as a politician, or the end of the Bandaranaike dynasty.

Her brother Anura Bandaranaike is foreign minister as well as minister of tourism, and she still remains the head of the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP).

As for the presidency, Mrs. Kumaratunga will not be able to stand again - the constitution only allows two terms in office.

The ruling party has named the current Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse as its man. He will be up against the main opposition United National Party leader Ranil Wickramasinghe.

Diverting attention

Sri Lanka has an executive presidency, and a change in leadership an mean a decisive change for the country.

But the poll comes at a very difficult time.

The island is still struggling to deal with the aftermath of last December's tsunami, which left more than 30,000 dead, and around half a million homeless.

Tamil Tiger rebels
Relations between the Tigers and the government have worsened
Already victims have said they feel their plight has become enmeshed in politics and now there is concern it will be forgotten as the country turns its attention towards an election.

Relations with the Tamil Tiger rebels are poisonous and the ceasefire agreed in 2002 - which ended more than two decades of civil war - is close to collapse.

The situation has deteriorated further since the killing of the foreign minister Laxman Kadirigamar earlier this month.

Following the murder, the rebels have now agreed to high level talks with the government - something they had previously rejected.

However, with an election on the way, there is a danger the issue could be put on the back burner.

It is likely that nothing will be decided or accomplished and in the meantime the situation would just worsen.

Rival candidates

The opposition candidate, Mr Wickramasinghe, already has experience dealing with the rebels.

Ranil Wickramasinghe
Ranil Wickramasinghe will hope for a second chance
It was as prime minister that he signed the current ceasefire, and began peace talks which stalled in 2003.

His party lost the parliamentary elections last year over a number of issues: he was seen as an appeaser in relations with the rebels, which could well play against him in the aftermath of Mr Kadirigamar's death.

Moreover, his economic reform programme was highly unpopular. His challenge will be to win back the voters he lost last time.

His opponent, Mahinda Rajapakse paints himself as a man of the people.

He is seen as having a popular support base within the ruling party and also amongst Sinhalas nationalists in the south of the country - although the two nationalist parties, JVP and JHU, still have not officially backed his nomination.

He has built strong relations with the Buddhist clergy, which is critical as more than 70% percent of the country is Buddhist.

His greatest challenge will be to broaden his appeal to Tamils, Muslims and other minorities.

Kumaratunga's influence

However, President Kumaratunga is unlikely to fade away without trying another gambit to keep control.

There is popular speculation that she may dissolve parliament and try and hold general elections simultaneously with the presidential poll.

It could allow her to dictate the make up of the assembly and try to ensure the hardline JVP, who resigned from her coalition in June, will be marginalised.

Whilst the peace process and security are an issue for Sri Lankans, it will not be the main one during the campaign.

Inflation is at an all time high and the cost of living is escalating.

It is this issue that most people are preoccupied with and it is on this issue the election will most likely be fought.


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