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70 pc turnout at Lanka polls

world Updated: Jan 27, 2010 00:43 IST
Sutirtho Patranobis
Sutirtho Patranobis
Hindustan Times
Retired general Sarath Fonseka

Retired general Sarath Fonseka may or may not win Tuesday’s Presidential election against incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa. But there is one, rather important, vote he did not receive in today’s voting – his own.

As it surprisingly turned out, US green carding-holding Fonseka isn’t a registered voter in Sri Lanka. But as per provisions of the Lankan Constitution, Fonseka remained qualified to run for President.

``I want the people to know that I am fully qualified; under article 13 of the constitution, to contest for the Presidential Election,” Fonseka said. ``I am a citizen of this country which is why I was the Chief of Defence Staff and the Army Commander,” Fonseka added. Minutes before polling ended at 4 p.m., Fonseka gave a television interview explaining what appeared to be a closely guarded secret.

The government, however, later said that it would seek a clarification from the Election Commission on the issue and if required take legal recourse.

Till late evening, there was no official data on voter turnout. But, according to non-governmental election monitors, more than 70 per cent of the 14 million-electorate had cast their votes in the first nation-wide poll after the defeat of the LTTE.

Rajapaksa and Fonseka appear to be neck-and-neck in the race.

There were reports of violence from Jaffna, 400 km north of Colombo, where grenades and petrol bombs were lobbed by unidentified miscreants to scare voters. Sporadic incidents were reported from Vavuniya, about 300 km from Colombo, where displaced Tamils voted in temporary refugee camps.

The TamilNet website reported that ``18 percent voted in the Tamil-dominated Jaffna, according to Jaffna Election Official S. Kuganathan. However, reports from Batticaloa (Tamils and Muslim dominated district in the east) said turnout was 55 percent.’’ The Centre for Monitoring Election Violence said the turnout in the former Tamil Tiger administrative capital, Kilinochchi, was less than 8 per cent.

Counting began in the evening and the result was expected by Wednesday noon.

As voting progressed, and indeed through the poll campaign, if India kept a watch, it did quietly. As Sri Lanka’s closest and largest neighbour, India has a history of influencing politics and then receiving flak for it in the island nation. Presidents and political parties have made their mark by whipping up Sinhalese nationalism and anti-India rhetoric. But in the run-up to Tuesday’s crucial poll, political parties and their protagonists too seemed to have deliberately kept away from criticising India.

One reason for that is India is not being seen here as openly backing either Rajapaksa or Fonseka.

Neither the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) or the combined opposition coalition, United National Front (UNF) – including the stringently anti-India Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) -- made India or its economic and regional foreign policy an issue during the campaign.

What did surprise many was the complete silence of the JVP, a radical Marxist party, on India. Broadly, India for JVP is what the United States is for the Indian Left parties – an evil, capitalist empire out to gobble up smaller economies in the neighbourhood. JVP’s anti-India policy is one of its essential doctrines.

But the politics seems to have changed. ``We are not always anti (India). If they support Sri Lanka, we do not oppose India. When India acts anti-Sri Lanka, only then we oppose,’’ JVP MP Vijitha Herath said on Monday.

``Both candidates need India. Both candidates have wooed India. And both candidates are in touch with New Delhi,’’ a political analyst, who did not wish to be named, said.

``India is also not being seen as overtly interfering in the election. And, the UNP is a large part of the opposition and is not known to be anti-India. The fact that UNP and JVP are on the same platform itself is radical,’’ historian Silan Kadirgamar said. As long as India is not seen as hurting Lankan nationalism, anti-Indian feelings would remain dormant.

``It is a good sign that India has not been attacked in the campaign. Maybe, India is doing a good job here,’’ a diplomat said. As for which Presidential candidate India is supporting, the running joke in political circles here is India would support the winner.