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Sri Lanka - 2004 General Election

December 2001. On 7 February 2004 President Chandrika Kumaratunga dissolved Parliament and called early elections for 2 April 2004 three years ahead of schedule. These were the island's third general elections in four years and were called in a bid to break a political stalemate between President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe over how to handle peace talks with Tamil Tiger rebels to end the civil war that has lasted for the last two decades and killed some 64 000 people.

During the conflict tens of thousands of Sri Lankans couldn't vote either because of Tiger-imposed election boycotts or because more than 1.6 million people were repeatedly displaced by the fighting. Most of the voteless were among the country's 3.2 million Tamils who are predominant in the north and east of the country where most of the fighting raged. The rest of the country is dominated by the 14 million ethnic Sinhalese.

In 2002 a Norwegian-brokered cease-fire with the rebels was signed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe. However the talks about a political solution to the conflict were stalled in April 2003 when the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam walked out. Efforts to restart talks failed in November 2003 after President Kumaratunga dismissed three ministers in the government saying that the Prime Minister had compromised security in his talks with the Tigers. The process was further complicated in March 2004 by a split in the rebel ranks after a Tamil Tiger leader Mr. V Muralitharan known as Karuna led a breakaway from the main Tiger rebel group and the two factions were threatening to go to war against each other.

Although the United National Party (UNP) of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had won the elections in 2001 there had been an awkward cohabitation between President Kumaratunga who leads the United Peoples' Freedom Alliance a rival party and has vast constitutional powers and Mr. Wickremesinghe who controlled Parliament.

In January 2004, the SLFP and the JVP formed a political grouping known as the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA). In February, President Kumaratunga dissolved Parliament and called for fresh elections. In these elections, which took place in April 2004, the UPFA received 45% of the vote, with the UNP receiving 37% of the vote. While it did not win enough seats to command a majority in Parliament, the UPFA was able to form a government and appoint a cabinet headed by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. The JVP later broke with the SLFP and left the government, but often supported it from outside.

A long-negotiated accord between the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the major constituent of the Opposition People's Alliance (PA) and the extremist, Marxist Janantha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) party was finally signed on 20 January 2004. President Kumaratunga, and her SLFP, supported the idea of a devolution of power in a final negotiated resolution with the Tigers. The JVP had long rejected such a solution and remained a frequent antagonist of the current peace process. The combined parliamentary strength of the two parties -- the SLFP's 72 seats plus the JVP's 16 seats -- was still less than the government's United National Front (UNF) majority of 114 parliamentary seats.

On 07 February 2004, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga dissolved Sri Lanka's Parliament and called for general elections to take place on April 2. The elections were several years early (the current Parliament was seated in December 2001 and its five-year term was set to end December 2006). The President's UPFA nominated 250 candidates in total, which included 39 individuals from the extremist Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), 211 individuals from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), several Muslims, and members of the Buddhist clergy.

During the electoral campaign both pledged to reopen talks as soon as possible but differed sharply in their approach. President Kumaratunga accused Mr. Wickremesinghe of endangering the country's security by giving away too much to win peace with the rebels. Her United Peoples' Freedom Alliance also accused the government of corruption and appealed to the people to "join hands to rid the country of war uncertainty and corruption". Meanwhile Mr Wickremesinghe's UNP campaigned almost exclusively on the Prime Minister's peace bid saying he needed a new mandate to complete the process.

A record 6 024 candidates from 24 registered political parties and 192 independent groups including for the first time a party of Buddhist monks contested the elections. Another wildcard was the inclusion of the People's Liberation Front (JVP) a hard-line nationalist party with Marxist economic policies in the United Peoples' Freedom Alliance.

Political violence rose in the days prior to polling day although it remained far less than in the last election in 2001 when some 61 people had been killed in political attacks. In eastern parts of the country pre-poll violence left at least two people dead including a candidate close to the breakaway Tiger leader. Police deployed a 64 000-strong force to guard the 10 400 polling booths and counting centres while the military patrolled and reinforced areas prone to violence. Some 25 000 local and international election monitors including the European Union and the Commonwealth were also deployed on election day.

Final results from Sri Lanka's 02 April 2004 parliamentary election came out 04 April 2004 and President Kumaratunga's political grouping, the "UPFA," emerged with the largest number of seats in Parliament (105)), but did not attain a majority in Parliament (113 seats or more). The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) won five seats, and the tea estate Tamil Ceylon Worker's Congress (CWC), won 6-7 seats. Big winners in the election included the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), a new party running an all-Buddhist monk candidate slate, which won nine seats. As further evidence of the heightened polarization of Sri Lankan politics, the Tamil National Alliance, which is completely controlled by the LTTE, also did well, winning 22 seats, all from the north and east.

On 16 June 2005 coalition partner Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) left the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) government after President Chandrika Kumaratunga refused to meet its demand to abandon the so-called "joint mechanism" on tsunami aid with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The JVP's defection left President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga with the unpleasant prospect of heading a minority government. The JVP defection cost Kumaratunga's government 39 seats in Parliament, as well as control of all seven Provincial Councils.

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