Lanka votes in local polls, eyes on Marxist vote

The polls are a litmus test of the popularity of Rajapaksa's hardline Marxist allies that could impact on a fragile peace process.

india Updated: Mar 30, 2006 10:54 IST

Sri Lankans began voting on Thursday in local government elections widely seen as a litmus test of the popularity of President Mahinda Rajapaksa's hardline Marxist allies that could impact on a fragile peace process.

Polls in and near Tamil Tiger areas across most of the island's north and east have been put back six months on security worries and, with only a handful of frontline areas voting, attention is concentrated on the majority Sinhalese south.

The Marxist JVP backed Rajapaksa in last November's presidential election, votes with him in parliament but is contesting local polls separately, and analysts say it wants to increase its control beyond the one council it currently holds.

The JVP, along with the much smaller JHU, a party of Buddhist monks, has long opposed making concessions to the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Keeping JVP support is seen as limiting government options at upcoming peace talks.

"Whether or not people vote on the peace process it will certainly have an impact on it," said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives in Colombo. "How well the JVP does will indicate how much room for manoeuvre Mahinda has."

At the last local polls in 2002, the opposition United National Party, then in power, won almost all councils. JVP took only one.

Analysts say the ruling party usually fares better in local polls and expect the United Peoples' Freedom Alliance, which includes Rajapaksa's Sri Lanka Freedom Party, to be the main winner this time.

Voters said local issues and not the peace process would decide the poll, something analysts says could help the JVP, seen by some as more efficient than the mainstream parties.

"This is just an election for council members," 46-year-old factory manager Sudath Anil told Reuters at a polling station. "It's not about the peace process. We need the councils to build roads, remove garbage and do other sanitary development work."

Marxist marriage in balance?

If the JVP notably expands its share of the vote, analysts say Rajapaksa may face a simple choice -- either take a tough line with the LTTE rebels that might cause direct talks next month to collapse, or cut his ties with the Marxists.

Stockbrokers say any substantial growth in the JVP vote would also be likely to cause concern among investors that the Marxists might gain more control over economic policy.

Rajapaksa won the presidency with a wafer-thin minority, and analysts say he would have lost without the JVP's backing and a LTTE boycott in the north and east that kept away minority Tamil voters seen backing the more conciliatory UNP candidate.

Analysts say that boycott showed the rebels were tired of the peace process, and Rajapaksa's election was followed by a string of suspected rebel attacks in the north and east that all but destroyed a 2002 ceasefire.

Worries about a return to a two-decade civil war that killed more than 64,000 people on both sides -- more than twice the number of Sri Lankans killed by the 2004 tsunami -- hammered the stock market and worried foreign investors.

Tensions have fallen since the two sides agreed to talk, but even before a second round of talks in Geneva in mid-April analysts fear the process is already deadlocked, with each accusing the other of breaking promises made at the first round.

"Things are boiling on all fronts," said Janes' Defence Weekly analyst Iqbal Athas. "I think the LTTE probably will go to Geneva, but they will go to scream so that the world hears them. Whether there is escalation and an outbreak of war will depend on how things shape up there."

First Published: Mar 30, 2006 10:54 IST