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Post LTTE, bitterly divided Sri Lanka set to elect president

A viciously split Sri Lanka goes to the polls Tuesday to elect a president in the first nationwide election after the decisive rout of the Tamil Tigers.

world Updated: Jan 24, 2010 16:04 IST

A viciously split Sri Lanka goes to the polls Tuesday to elect a president in the first nationwide election after the decisive rout of the Tamil Tigers.

Across the length and breadth of the island, Sri Lanka seems to be at war with itself as two popular men credited for crushing the Tigers battle it out to capture the all-powerful presidency.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa and former army chief Sarath Fonseka, both from the majority Sinhalese community, were also good friends who became bitter foes after crushing the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Although there are about 20 other contestants, the largest number in any presidential battle, it is clear that the winner will be one of these two men.

Not long ago, both Rajapaksa, who first became president in November 2005 with a vow to overcome the Tigers, and Fonseka, who miraculously survived an LTTE assassination attempt in April 2006, were firmly united in their resolve to end one of the world's longest running insurgencies.

And they succeeded in thrashing the LTTE and killing its leadership in May last year, stunning Sri Lanka and the world and triggering a nationalist euphoria that transformed Rajapaksa and Fonseka into near gods.

Although the victory over the Tigers came at a huge human cost, both men earned the sobriquet "war heroes", at least within the Sinhalese majority, for achieving what was thought to be an impossible task.

Just as quickly, the Rajapaksa-Fonseka friendship came apart.

The Rajapaksa camp let it out that Fonseka was becoming too big for his boots and that the real credit for defeating the LTTE must go to the president who spiked all western attempts to call off the war against the Tigers.

Fonseka was also accused of attempting to stage a military coup.

The general hit back, accusing the president of sidelining and humiliating him after the war. After weeks of rumours, he shed the uniform in November and, egged on by opposition parties, decided to take on Rajapaksa.

The prospect of a Rajapaksa-Fonseka fight electrified Sri Lanka, a country of about 21 million people and 14 million voters. In no time, an election that would have been a cakewalk for Rajapaksa became a nightmare thanks to a near vertical division in the dominant Sinhalese community.

In the process, the Tamils and the mainly Tamil-speaking Muslims have become much sought after since the votes of the minority communities could tilt the balance in a knife-edge contest.

Political pundits differ over the electoral outcome notwithstanding claims by the government that Rajapaksa will win easily.

"It seems the Rajapaksa camp is a little panicky," P. Sahadevan, a Sri Lanka watcher at Jawaharlal Nehru University here, told IANS. "If the president was a war hero, then he should be winning hands down, Fonseka or no Fonseka. Actually the election is not just about the LTTE. It is also about corruption, nepotism and price rise."

President Rajapaksa's United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) has the support of some Tamil groups which once fought for a Tamil state and faced the LTTE's unforgiving wrath.

Backing Fonseka is the main opposition United National Party (UNP) of former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the Sinhalese-Marxist Janatha Vimukti Peramuna (JVP) and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), once closely allied to the LTTE.

The close race has triggered more than 700 incidents of violence that have claimed at least five lives. Some fear widespread violence Tuesday. This has caused the US, the UN and the European Union to voice concern.

The LTTE's defeat was expected to unite Sri Lanka, but that did not happen. Will the presidential election bring peace?

Sahadevan is not sure: "Whoever wins, Sri Lanka will remain an unstable country politically. One thought the LTTE was a major cause for instability. It is much more than that. Sri Lanka has a basic tendency to be unstable."