After Sri Lanka's violent election, dealmaking to come

The government will continue to seek consensus on a plan to devolve more power to the Tamil minority.

Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga's government emerged from Tuesday's vote with a parliamentary lead that should give her a working majority, but the prospects of settling a long, festering conflict seem further off after an election campaign that claimed more than 70 lives.

A core issue is a new draft constitution that contains reforms to devolve local-governance powers to areas where the Tamils dominate; a plan intended to win over the ethnic minority, whose extremist guerrilla separatists - the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE) - have fought the government for 17 years. Cooperation between Mrs. Kumaratunga's People's Alliance (PA) and the United National Party (UNP), led by Ranil Wickremesinghe, who together have 196 seats in the 225-member Parliament - is essential for adopting the plan.

Passage of the draft constitution fell apart in August after the two main parties disagreed over other changes in the proposal related to the vast powers of the executive presidency, which the opposition would like to see abolished.

"The country needs a consensual approach to deal with the LTTE's challenge and the Tamil grievances that underlie it," says Jehan Perara, of the National Peace Council. "[But] after this election campaign, and its violence, the PA in particular has a lot of repair work to do in this regard," he says.

There have been calls for repolling in 17 electoral divisions, but the irregularities are not deemed widespread enough to have changed the overall electoral results, which saw the PA lose its one-seat absolute majority in Parliament.

Many electoral violations were of the garden-variety: stuffing and removing of ballot boxes and systematic impersonation of voters. But in the increasingly violence-prone political culture here, there were also hundreds of more serious incidents that ranged from physical intimidation, property damage, and misuse of state resources, to shooting automatic weapons and bomb throwing.

Analysts say there is little substantive difference between the two main parties over the need to devolve some significant measure of self-governance to Tamil homelands in the north and east, as evidenced in their cooperation in the draft constitution. During the campaign period, however, the two main parties' positions on the issue diverged further, although this may have been more for political effect than reflective of any genuine widening discrepancies of policy.

In recent months, Kumaratunga has taken a more hard-line stance against the LTTE, vowing to crush them militarily, while at the same time leaving the door open for renewed negotiations.

By contrast, UNP leader Mr. Wickremesinghe has said he favors a cease-fire and the implementation of long-existing provisions for local councils, while continuing to discuss a more permanent settlement. With virtually no chance of forming a government, the UNP's views are largely moot at this point; what remains is their ability to play spoiler to Kumaratunga's plan.

"We need to fashion a constitution that provides for the adequate redress of just grievances of the Tamils and this draft constitution does this - it comes very close to federalism without using the word federalism - and for that I give her a lot of credit," says T.D.S.A. Dissanayaka, a retired ambassador. "The challenge is that she has to draw in the UNP. Without that you can't change the constitution, and without that change, you can't stop the war."

The relationship between the two major parties hinges to a considerable extent on the personal - and professional - relations between their two leaders, currently at a low point. Future cooperation will depend on the political overtures the president is able to offer Wickremesinghe, say well-placed Sri Lankans who know both - assuming Wickremesinghe remains at the helm of the UNP.

Despite the hard-line approach Kumaratunga has adopted, there is no sign that she has abandoned as her top priority the ending of the conflict which has cost some 60,000 lives.

In a poll conducted before the elections 51 percent of respondents said negotiations had a better chance of settling the issue; 41 percent favored a military solution. At the same time, 49 percent of ethnic majority Sinhalese responding said a military victory would prove the most effective solution, while the majority of Tamils and Muslims favored peace talks.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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