| An election worker sleeps after working overnight at a counting centre in Colombo. (AFP)
Colombo, April 3 (Reuters): Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s party inched closer to a general election win today, but looked short of a parliamentary majority, complicating efforts to restart peace talks with Tamil rebels.
It was a mixed message from voters, ousting Ranil Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP), but giving large minorities to smaller parties on opposing ends of the island’s ethnic divide.
At the end of vote counting today, the Elections Commission said that with more than two-thirds of the votes counted, Kumaratunga’s United People’s Freedom Alliance had 47.2 per cent of the vote, compared with 37.9 per cent for the UNP.
That was enough for the alliance to declare victory and issue a statement saying Kumaratunga would “invite the Freedom Alliance to form the new government no sooner the elections commissioner has finalised all the results”.
The figures are still in flux, but projections give the Alliance up to 109 seats in the 225-member parliament — four short of a majority — while the UNP is forecast to take 80.
“This is not a good thing. The country did not need another minority government,” Rohan Edrisinha, a legal expert at the University of Colombo, said after the vote, Sri Lanka’s third in four years.
An all-clergy party of Buddhist monks had 6.3 per cent, while a rebel Tamil Tiger-backed party had about six per cent.
“This is a complete repudiation of the UNP,” said presidential spokesman Harim Peiris. “The projections show a big difference in the number of seats.”
The US issued a statement urging the new government and the Tigers to return to talks to “quickly forge a lasting peace”.
The vote in Sri Lanka’s most peaceful election in decades was fought mostly over how to permanently end the 20-year civil war that has killed 64,000 people and tarnished the country’s image internationally.
Wickremesinghe and Kumaratunga have shared an awkward government since he won the last election in 2001. As Prime Minister, he controlled parliament while she, as President, had vast constitutional powers.
Kumaratunga used those powers to call the snap election after accusing Wickremesinghe of endangering the security of the country by giving away too much to gain peace with the rebels.
“I think it will be a real blow to the peace process as well, there will be no clear direction,” Edrisinha said.
Kumaratunga has said she wanted to start talks with the Tigers as soon as possible, but the People’s Liberation Front, a Sinhalese nationalist party that is part of the alliance, has in the past taken a hard line in dealing with the rebels.
The party could also be a concern for investors because of its stance against economic reforms and privatisation.
The economy grew an estimated 5.5 per cent last year and the stock market has surged nearly 80 per cent since the ceasefire was signed in February 2002 as prospects of a peace dividend lured investors back and aid donors pledged $4.5 billion.
A ceasefire that Wickremesinghe signed more than two years ago has held despite stalled peace talks, the feud between the President and Prime Minister and a recent split in the Tigers. The LTTE has said it would resume negotiations with anyone who has a mandate and the power, but the rebel split, with a strong eastern commander breaking away last month, may complicate that.
The LTTE-backed party, the Tamil National Alliance, could win about 20 seats, giving the rebels a voice in parliament.
Yesterday’s election was the first in which the Tigers had openly endorsed a party and was a crucial test of their claim to be the sole legitimate voice of the Tamil community.
The Tigers began fighting more than two decades ago for a separate homeland in the north and east for Tamils, who say they are discriminated against by the Sinhalese majority.
The Tigers control a swathe of territory in the north and east, but have dropped a demand for a separate Tamil state in favour of autonomy.