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Friday, 6 October, 2000, 16:24 GMT 17:24 UK
Sri Lanka's parties offer little choice
Putting up election posters
Rival parties are calling for constitutional change
By Alastair Lawson in Colombo

President Kumaratunga has made no secret of the importance she attaches to these general elections.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga
President Kumaratunga hopes for a large majority
She had repeatedly stated that her government needs a convincing majority in parliament so that it can push ahead with its plans to alter the constitution and thereby implement a devolution package for the country that would allow Tamil majority areas in the north and east to have more autonomy.

She has hinted that she may be prepared to turn the new parliament into a kind of constituent assembly to bring this about, even though the existing constitution states that any changes to its text must be done with the consent of two-thirds of the MPs in parliament.

Vague manifesto

The 30-page general election manifesto of the Peoples' Alliance steers clear of this controversial question.

Sri Lankan artillery
Both agree on change in order to end the war
It devotes only a quarter of a page to what it calls the war and ethnic conflict.

The manifesto states that the government's main task is to enlist the support of all political parties, religious denominations and social groups to install a national government and introduce a new constitution.

But it doesn't say how this will be achieved, only that the new constitution will contain proposals to "devolve power to the periphery".

War policy

The manifesto goes on to say that the key objective of the government is to defeat what it calls the terrorist movement launched by Vellupillai Prabhakaran, the leader of the Tamil Tigers.

Nowhere does it mention the possibility of a negotiated settlement to the war.

Instead, it says that the government will convince the Tamil majority in the north and east that the country's Buddhist majority is fully committed towards upholding peace.

The United National Party in its manifesto says that it will involve the Tamil Tigers in future peace negotiations.

Consensus needed

It argues that long-term peace is unattainable in Sri Lanka without the consent of all parties, including the rebels.

Opposition leader Ranil Wickremasinghe
Government-opposition emnity is a poll issue
They say that the army's latest offensive against the Tigers in the northern Jaffna Peninsula has been launched for political reasons, so that President Kumaratunga can benefit in the election from successes on the battlefield.

That's an allegation which has been strenuously denied by the army and the government.

Economy

Turning to the economy, the Peoples' Alliance say that per capita income and annual economic growth have risen under their tenure, while unemployment has been reduced from around 14% in 1994 to around 8% in 1999.

It says that economic growth will increase from 5% at present to between 7% and 8% in the next five years.

The UNP argues that its economic priorities are to create jobs and increase income levels.

They have pledged to stimulate economic growth by dividing Sri Lanka into five economic regions, each of which will be presided over by an Economic Development Commission which will promote industry, agriculture, trade and tourism.

Independent analysts who have examined the manifestos of Sri Lanka's two main parties argue that there is no significant difference between them on many key issues.

Both parties agree on the need to change the constitution as a possible means of ending the war, and both accept that Sri Lanka must continue to be a liberalised economy.

Analysts say that the most contentious issue is that of the ongoing hostility between the president and UNP leader, Mr Wickremasinghe.

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