Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga's political alliance held a strong lead yesterday in early counting of parliamentary elections fought over how to negotiate a lasting peace with Tamil rebels, despite predictions of a hung parliament with no single party expected to win a majority.
With hopes for an end to the island's 20-year civil war with Tamil Tiger rebels, turnout for Friday's vote was high despite security concerns. Officials said about 75 percent of the country's 12.8 million eligible voters cast ballots.
The Election Commission said that with 4.5 million votes counted -- or about half the total votes cast -- the president's United People's Freedom Alliance had secured 45 percent, against 36 percent for Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's United National Front.
A political party led by Buddhist monks tallied 5 percent, while a pro-Tamil Tiger party had 10 percent. Final results were expected tomorrow.
While millions of votes were left to be counted, the president's party was confident of victory.
"The alliance has received the people's mandate to form the next government," said Harim Peiris, Kumaratunga's top aide.
Even if the party fails to win a parliamentary majority of 113 seats, Peiris insisted it would be able to gather together a ruling coalition.
"This is a clear repudiation of the prime minister and his government," Peiris said.
There were numerous reports of election rigging -- particularly in areas dominated by the Tamil Tiger rebels -- but monitors said Friday's vote went far more smoothly than most Sri Lankan elections, which are often plagued by widespread fraud and violence.
Election officials planned to meet today with leaders of all the major parties to discuss the reports, said Election Commissioner Dayanada Dissanayake. Depending on the outcome of those talks, voters might be called to cast their ballots again in a handful of areas.
The election, widely seen as a showdown between the approaches of the president and prime minister toward peace negotiations with the Tamil Tigers, may lead to a divided 225-seat parliament where neither main party holds a clear majority.
That could endanger a fragile ceasefire with the rebels that has held for two years, but is already complicated by stalled peace talks, a bitter rivalry between the president and prime minister and a split in the rebel ranks.
Kumaratunga, who escaped a rebel assassination attempt in December 1999, wants to resume the peace talks, but refuses to give the rebels the amount of autonomy they demand.
The rebels favor Wickremesin-ghe, who signed the February 2002 ceasefire that stopped the fighting, which killed nearly 65,000 people.
Kumaratunga and Wickremesin-ghe have waged a public power struggle over the direction of the peace talks, with the president -- who believes the prime minister has conceded too much to the rebels -- seizing control of three important ministries late last year and then calling early elections.
If neither major party wins a parliamentary majority, they would be forced to turn to smaller parties, ranging from the pro-Tiger Tamil National Alliance, to ones led by Buddhist monks or Muslims, to forge a coalition or get legislation passed.
That could give unprecedented political power to the Tigers. The guerrillas began fighting in 1983 to carve out a separate homeland for minority ethnic Tamils.
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