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Sri Lanka elections: Former partners in war now battle in politics

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka  — Voters go to the polls Tuesday in Sri Lanka to elect a president, eight months after the defeat of Tamil Tiger rebels whose bloody struggle had defined a generation.

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka  — Voters go to the polls Tuesday in Sri Lanka to elect a president, eight months after the defeat of Tamil Tiger rebels whose bloody struggle had defined a generation.

Incumbent President Mahindra Rajapaksa called elections two years ahead of schedule, seeking to capitalize on the historic military victory. But that strategy came unstuck when Army Chief Gen. Sarath Fonseka emerged as his prime challenger at the head of an unlikely coalition of socialist, nationalist, and ethnic-minority parties.

The race has transfixed an ethnically divided nation that had broadly welcomed Rajapaksa’s victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam after almost three decades of fighting for a separate homeland.

The challenger: from war’s commander to Tamil defender

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In the last months of the war, LTTE leaders made a final stand in a designated no-fire zone where thousands of Tamil civilians died in the fighting. Western allies accused Sri Lankan troops, then commanded by Fonseka, of firing into the zone to force mass evacuations. Sri Lanka has repeatedly denied committing any war crimes. A government commission is currently looking into claims of atrocities.

In an unlikely twist, Fonseka has positioned himself as a voice of Tamil aspirations for greater rights and a degree of self-rule. Most Tamil politicians have lined up behind him, giving him a potentially crucial swing vote. But election monitoring groups warn that many displaced Tamils will be unable to vote Tuesday as they lack identity cards.

Fonseka, whose posters portray both a stern man in uniform and a softer politician, has also tried to shift the blame for wartime conduct onto his opponents. He has claimed that the president’s brother, who runs the defense ministry, ordered troops to kill LTTE leaders who tried to surrender.

Speaking Monday, Fonseka and his allies accused the government of intimidating voters and mobilizing security forces for political purposes. Fonseka told a press conference here that the positioning of five Army battalions in the seaside capital was an “indication of a military coup” in the event of an election defeat.

Such claims may be exaggerated. But there is trepidation here over what would happen in what is expected to be a close race if one or both sides cry foul. Already the campaigning has been dogged by violence, dirty tricks, and claims of fraud, setting many Sri Lankans on edge.

The chief election commissioner has complained of being ignored in his efforts to regulate state media airtime, which has been unabashedly pro-Rajapaksa.

Final results are expected by midday Wednesday.

Incumbent touts strong economy

For his part, Rajapaksa has campaigned on his record in defeating the LTTE, delivering economic growth despite a global downturn, and the political stability of his governing coalition, which includes former LTTE fighters.

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He has also backtracked on the detention of Tamil war refugees, opened up camps, and allowed many to return home. Diplomats say election calculations appeared to drive this U-turn more than international pressure.

With the cost of living rising sharply in recent years, economic points have hit home, say observers, far more than the controversy over battlefield conduct. “People have a very short memory about the war. Now that it’s ended, they asking what’s in it for me,” says a Western diplomat.

The president’s opponents have accused the government of corruption and waste that has squandered any peace dividend from the conflict. Fonseka last week told an opposition newspaper that up to Rp400 billion ($3.5 billion) was lost to government corruption in 2009.

Tamils as swing vote

Of Sri Lanka’s 14 million eligible voters, roughly three-quarters belong to the majority Sinhalese ethnicity. Rajapaksa has strong support in the Sinhalese south of the island but faces a tough fight in other areas.

Fonseka’s campaign also claims to have support from the security forces, setting up a potentially troublesome split between those loyal to their political rulers and those who see Fonseka as their champion. Twenty other candidates are also running, but are not expected to do well.

In a close race, the votes of Tamils, who make up around 18 percent of the population, could be decisive. In 2005, Rajapaksa won a narrow first-time victory after the LTTE ordered Tamils, who were leaning toward the incumbent, to stay away from the polls. Analysts say the Tamil boycott delivered a majority to Rajapaksa.

“If he loses it will be a historic blunder,” says a senior Western diplomat, referring to Rakapaksa’s decision to call early elections.