Assassination Leaves a Leadership Vacuum in Sri Lanka

THE killing of President Ranashinghe Premadasa brings Sri Lanka to a new threshold of political uncertainty. The two-party system that has dominated the nation's politics since 1956 may be one of the casualties of Saturday's bombing.

Premadasa and 15 others, including his bodyguards and a policeman, were killed Saturday afternoon by a suicide bomber during a May Day parade in the country's capital, Colombo. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who are fighting for an independent homeland for the minority Tamil community, have denied responsibility, and Premadasa had many other enemies. But the bombing closely resembled past attacks by the Tigers. The group is accused of using a suicide bomber to kill former Indian Prime Minister Raj iv Gandhi in 1991.

The assassination leaves a leadership vacuum in Sri Lanka, an island nation that has suffered 10 years of violence between the Tamils and the majority Sinhalese. In the late 1980s, the conflict erupted into an all-out civil war. Today, 10 years after the troubles began, the government has reached a stalemate in its war against the Tigers in the country's northern and eastern provinces.

Premadasa had a mixed record, and his popularity seemed low. His economic policies had brought growth and jobs, but he was also responsible for creating death squads that destroyed a Marxist insurrectionist group in 1988 and 1989, leading to tens of thousands of extra-judicial killings and contributing to one of the worst human rights records of any country in the world.

HE was an energetic leader, however, who seemed genuinely interested in solving ethnic discord. His government was putting together a long-delayed political package to solve the Tamil problem. Analysts said Premadasa, despite his serious flaws, had the authority to offer concessions to the Tamils without risking the wrath of the Sinhalese majority.

The biggest casualty of Saturday's carnage may be Sri Lanka's two-party political system. To maintain his power in the United National Party (UNP), Premadasa made all major decisions and surrounded himself with a notoriously weak Cabinet. Thus the party that has held power since 1977 holds no likely successors.

Former Prime Minister D. B. Wijetung, who was sworn in as acting president Saturday, is given little credit for leadership. According to the Constitution, the Parliament will vote within a month to choose someone to fill out Premadasa's term.

The main opposition party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, is also in total disarray. Its ailing leader, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, cannot decide whether the party should be run by her son Anura or her daughter Chandrika Kumaratunga. The Democratic United National Front, formed by two breakaway members of Premadasa's UNP, was gaining strength until April 24, when the more charismatic of its leaders, Lalith Athulathmudali, was shot and killed at an election rally.

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