COLOMBO, SRI LANKA — A desire for lasting peace tops voter concerns as war-weary Sri Lankans head to the polls for the third time in four years to choose a new parliament.
The government has been paralyzed by a political standoff over how to pursue peace talks with the Tamil Tiger rebels, who are seeking autonomy for ethnic minority Tamils. In February, President Chandrika Kumaratunga sacked the government of her opponent, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, accusing him of giving too much ground in peace negotiations. The animosity between the two leaders and their parties is one of the basic reasons that peace has remained a dream here.
In reality, there are few fundamental policy differences between the two main parties, and both are campaigning heavily on a platform of peace. As a result, the race is predicted to be very close, which may throw the role of kingmaker to smaller parties who could complicate the future government's peace negotiations.
"Whichever group forms the government cannot ignore the mandate it has got from the people," says Jayadeva Uyangoda, head of political science department of Colombo University. "They want to be seen as peacemakers. No party can afford to be seen as not moving ahead with the peace process."
The island's ethnic civil war has claimed the lives of 64,000 people since 1983. While everyone here claims to want an end to the conflict, any bid by the election's winner to deliver a peace deal will face a number of complicating factors, including the demands of coalition partners, division within the rebel ranks, and the end of the president's final term in 2006.
A pre-election survey conducted by the Centre for Policy Alternatives in Colombo indicated that the president's United People's Freedom Alliance will probably end up with more seats in parliament than the prime minister's United National Front (UNF). But the Alliance may not reach the magic figure of 113 seats, an absolute majority in the 225-member parliament.
"The difference between the Alliance and the UNF may not be that great," says Pakiyasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the CPA. "The minority parties will have a decisive say in who will form the government."
Ironically, the best suited for this role would be the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), a coalition of several Tamil political parties backed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). This is the first election since the war's outbreak in which the Tigers have endorsed a party.
The TNA is contesting in the Tamil-dominated north and east of the country. Its candidates say that the party will get at least 23 seats, a claim challenged by other Tamil parties opposing the TNA.
This election is a litmus test for the Tigers and at stake is its claim of being the sole representative of the Tamil community - a claim that has been shaken by a recent split within the guerrilla organization. Last month, a senior Tiger commander in the east, Colonel Karuna, defied the rebel movement's leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran. The split among the rebels has increased pressure on Mr. Prabhakaran's faction in the north to assert its position more firmly.
If the TNA manages to win a majority of the seats in the north and east, then the Tigers can reclaim their position as the sole representative of the Tamils. But if they fail to win some seven seats in the Tamil Tiger stronghold of Jaffna peninsula, it would be a crippling blow.
"The LTTE is in a desperate situation," said Sivanathan Lakshanthan, a resident of Jaffna peninsula. "The Tigers are aware of the fact that not everybody in Jaffna supports them, it's only the fear of the gun that keeps people quiet. The election results will show how much support the Tigers really enjoy."
If the TNA fares poorly, the future government would then need to decide whether to bring other Tamil parties into negotiations.
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has promised the nation that if his party comes back to power, the government will initiate peace talks next month. His present government had begun negotiations with the Tamil Tigers, giving Wickremesinghe the confidence that he can bring them back to the negotiating table.
"Give us the time that we lost," Mr. Wickremesinghe said in a speech. "Our term of six years was ended abruptly and the parliament dissolved. We did not get the opportunity to deliver peace, though we were moving in the right direction."
President Kumaratunga too has made a similar promise. She says that an Alliance government will invite the Tigers for negotiations and take the stalled peace process forward. But, Kumaratunga may be hamstrung by a Marxist coalition ally which is not in favor of unconditional negotiations with the Tamil Tiger guerrillas.
One of the reasons its a close race is that voters are saying they are disillusioned with the major parties.
"All these parties promise the same thing, but they have not delivered anything so far," says Senarath Wijesinghe, a businessman in the southern Galle district. "Kumaratunga came to power in 1994 promising peace, but we only saw more body bags coming home. The UNP started peace talks, but could not take it forward. The economy will automatically improve if there is peace in the country."
Kumaratunga's past efforts to begin a dialogue with the Tigers failed. In 1994 she held talks with the rebels and even managed a ceasefire agreement. But the peace held for only 100 days and was followed by a gory return to violence.
And if the president's party prevails, the government might only last until her final term expires in 2006. Most observers say Wickremesinghe will win the presidential election, and could for a new parliamentary vote.
In spite of the infighting among the Tamil Tigers and the intricacies of the electoral battle, Sri Lankans are still hoping for a stable government that will find a solution to the protracted conflict.
"People have tasted the fruits of the ceasefire or a no war situation. Now they want long term peace," says Lakshman Jayasinghe, a three-wheeler driver in Colombo. "We want to see the two major parties working together in this direction. We do not want another election."