Mon, Nov 17, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Sri Lankan feud threatens to derail fragile peace talks


Sri Lanka's president and premier have failed to end their feud, fuelling fears that the embattled nation was headed for a snap poll that could endanger a peace process with Tamil Tiger rebels, analysts say.

Most argue that a way out of the standoff between President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ranil Wick-remesinghe is another election as neither appears keen to practice political cohabitation.

An election four years ahead of schedule is fraught with dangers and foreign backers of the now suspended peace process are against a snap poll which is unlikely to alter the balance of power, diplomats said.

Sri Lanka's Western supporters as well as Japan and India do not favour an early election, diplomats said.

Foreign countries have pledged US$4.5 billion in aid to rebuild Sri Lanka. The US and India have in recent months increased their economic interest in the economy.

"A snap election could see a polarization of forces opposing the peace process," a diplomat said. "It could also lead to a much more militant parliament. The peace process can become a hostage of hardliners."

Norwegian peace brokers formally suspended their role Friday saying they would go home and wait till the two majority Sinhalese leaders resolve their difference and decide who was in charge in Colombo.

The latest crisis was triggered when Kumaratunga sacked three ministers and took over the portfolios of defense, interior and information and suspended parliament for two weeks till Wednesday.

Tamil legislator Dharmalingam Sidhathan said the proportional representation system will ensure that no party gets a two thirds majority on its own to have the mandatory majority to re-write the constitution.

"Any election will not bring a government with a majority big enough to amend the constitution," Sidhathan said. "So what is the point of a snap election. But without an election also, there is no way forward."

However, the beneficiaries of a snap poll could be the Marxist JVP, or people's Liberation Front and the Tamil Tigers, political analysts said.

The Tamil Tigers do not want to openly contest elections and be seen as accepting the authority of the state which they have been fighting to break away for three decades, but could put forward proxies.

A moderate Tamil group which was widely seen as front men of the Tigers ended up with 15 seats at the last election. The Tigers could back an "independent" group this time and emerge the "sole representatives" of Tamils.

Analysts say the political establishment may end up in a catch 22 situation as there was no immediate way out of the impasse which is bleeding the economy.

Stock values have dropped by over 20 percent since the crisis erupted, foreign tourists have cancelled holidays, investors placed have put plans on hold and markets have been nervously watching the political developments.

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