Sri Lanka: an uncertain mandate. Ruling party claims slim victory, but faces deeply divided society

Relieved that the violent ordeal of its presidential election is over, Sri Lanka faces new tests ahead uneasily. Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa, the candidate of the ruling United National Party, won a narrow victory over two challengers in Monday's national poll, darkened by terrorist violence and muted by a small turnout of voters.

``We are all relieved that sanity has prevailed over terrorism,'' the prime minister said in claiming victory.

The election, however, only gives Mr. Premadasa an uncertain mandate to deal with the political vendettas and ethnic rages besieging the small tropical island nation. Many Sri Lankans admit it will be difficult to break out of the web of violence that has killed about 10,000 people in the last six years.

In the north and east, efforts to end a civil war between the majority Sinhalese and the Tamil minority are stalemated. More than 50,000 Indian soldiers, who came to the island after Sri Lanka signed a 1987 peace accord with India, are bogged down fighting a weakened band of Tamil Tiger guerrillas. Indian troops were to disarm the guerrillas and oversee local elections.

A new provincial government dominated by the Tamils is caught up in the community's own internal rivalries and opposition among Sinhalese, who oppose the limited autonomy given Tamils by the peace accord.

In the south, extremists have submerged social and political life in a wave of terror in which hundreds of supporters of the government and the peace accord have been assassinated.

That has triggered widespread and brutal retaliation by government security forces and vigilantes, armed with extralegal emergency powers from the government.

``This is a deeply traumatic period for Sri Lanka, because the schisms are now so deep,'' says Neelan Tiruchelvam, a prominent Tamil and human rights activist. ``Can a new leader really govern with the kind of violence and repression in this society?''

Many will be closely watching to see if the new government can arrest a slide toward disintegration in Sri Lanka.

Premadasa, who comes from a low caste and worked his way up the political ladder, has been at the edge of the political mainstream, which is dominated by the country's landed gentry and family dynasties. His main opponent was former Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who joined politics after the 1959 assassination of her husband, Prime Minister Soloman Bandaranaike.

Many fear that the election results could lead immediately to more violence. The government imposed an island-wide curfew yesterday as soon as results were announced. Mrs. Bandaranaike refused to attend the swearing-in ceremony and is expected to dispute the poll, charging that it was rigged and that her supporters were intimidated.

Premadasa has described himself as a man of change, distancing himself from the controversial policies of retired President Junius Jayewardene. After almost a half century in public life, Mr. Jayewardene, widely known for his savvy politics, leaves a legacy of ethnic strife and crumbling law and order.

But Premadasa, whom many Sri Lankans link to what they view as the corrupt politics of the United National Party, is expected to have little room to maneuver. The new President will not have a fully functioning government until after February elections for a new parliament.

Premadasa also pledged during the campaign to renegotiate the Indian-Sri Lankan peace accord and to send Indian troops home. But despite Sinhalese agitation over the Indian involvement, New Delhi has made it clear that it will pull out in its own time and under its own terms.

The Tamil Tigers, battered by the Indian Army for more than a year, have lost much of their influence in the north and east. Following provincial council elections last month, a new Tamil administration, made up of members of other militant groups, has been installed to preside over a united province. The Indian Army is also arming militant Tamil security forces.

India, which harbored thousands of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees during the civil war, maintains that it will not withdraw until Tamil rights have been secured. Although the tough tactics of the Indian Army have left many Tamils embittered, they favor a continued Indian presence as a buffer against the Sri Lankan military, which brutalized Tamils during the ethnic conflict.

In the presidential election, voter turnout in Tamil areas was low, indicating the community remains skeptical of Colombo.

``India holds all the options,'' says a senior Asian diplomat in Colombo. ``Sinhalese have had to come to grips with the fact that they live on an island next to a giant neighbor, India.''

Political observers say those shifts are already under way in the country's tortured ethnic perceptions. Since the signing of the Sri Lankan accord, Tamils have won many of their demands, including autonomy in the north and east, the official status of the Tamil language (along with Sinhalese), and the granting of citizenship to thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils who emigrated from India in the last century.

Those changes have been accepted in recent months with little controversy, analysts say, showing that the Sinhalese may be acquiescing to the concept of a multi-ethnic society in which no one group can dominate.

In grappling with one ethnic issue, however, the country has trapped itself in another. The emergence of the Janata Vimukti Peramuna (JVP), a Sinhalese nationalist group with left-wing roots, has been spearheaded by their anti-Indian sentiment, which has appealed to wounded Sinhalese feelings.

Many analysts believe the JVP was seriously battered by the government crackdown before the election. Residents of the south were also embittered by JVP-inspired strikes and violence, which brought the country to a standstill in November, and by the extremists' call to boycott the election. Sri Lankans have a strong record of high voter turnout and democratic participation.

Although the JVP is expected to keep up its attacks, the group likely needs a period of rebuilding, analysts here say. In the meantime, Premadasa who took a soft line toward the militants during the election, could make further peace overtures before ordering a new offensive against the organization. ``We're keeping the doors open,'' a senior government official says.

Still, the new government will have to grapple with sensitive economic and social problems that have fueled the insurgency in the south: landlessness, overpopulation, failed economic development, and high unemployment among an educated youth.

``The Sinhalese from the villages feel their avenues of social mobility have been stopped,'' says a political analyst who asked not to be identified. ``There can be no political stability without a reconciliation with the lower-middle-class boys and those from rural peasant families who are attracted to the JVP.''

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