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Sri Lanka Elections May Affect Direction of Peace Process

30 March 2006

Sri Lanka has held local government elections that are being widely seen as a referendum on President Mahinda Rajapakse's handling of a peace process with the Tamil Tiger rebels. Anjana Pasricha reports from New Delhi on how these polls could affect the future of the country's two-decade-long ethnic conflict.

Sri Lankans went to the polls Thursday to choose local councils, four months after President Mahinda Rajapakse narrowly won national elections with the support of hard-line nationalist parties.

At that time, both Mr. Rajapakse and his allies promised to take a tough line with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Tiger Eelam, who are demanding an autonomous homeland for the ethnic Tamil minority in the north and the east.

But as violence flared and the country faced the prospect of a return to war, the new president struck a more conciliatory tone, and reopened a dialogue with the rebels.

The rebels responded favorably. The violence has lessened and peace talks have resumed, if somewhat hesitantly.

However, there are fears that President Rajapakse's peace efforts may receive a setback if one of its coalition partners, the People's Liberation Front, or JVP, fares well in Thursday's vote. The Marxist JVP is running its own candidates for the local councils.

The polls are being held in the south of the country, which is dominated by the majority Sinhalese. Because of security concerns, the vote has been postponed for six months in the north and east, where the rebels hold sway.

Analysts say if the hard-line JVP increases its share of votes, the president's flexibility in negotiating with the rebels could be severely restricted. The JVP has consistently opposed making concessions to the Tamil rebels, who are also known by their initials, the LTTE.

Jehan Perera, the head of the National Peace Council in Colombo, says the polls are being seen as a test of public opinion on the fragile peace process.

"If the popular expectation that the JVP will do better than expected comes about, then the JVP might be able to claim that people voted for it because it is critical of the present peace process," said Perera. "And it will give the JVP more power to dissuade the President from going on the path that he has agreed to, which is try and meet the LTTE and accommodate them. In that sense a good performance by the JVP would probably negatively impact upon the peace process."

The Tamil Tigers and the government are due to meet next month in Geneva for a second round of resumed peace talks, but in recent weeks both sides have accused the other of breaking promises made at an earlier round.

The Tamil struggle for an independent homeland erupted in 1983. A cease-fire signed in 2002 put the two-decade long war on hold, but there has been little headway in negotiating a solution to the conflict since then.

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