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Peace, Economy to Weigh on Sri Lankan Voters' Minds

Sri Lankans go to the polls Thursday for a presidential election that may determine the future of peace talks with separatists from the Tamil Tiger guerrilla group. But for many, it may be the country's economic woes that will determine which candidate they support.

Analysts say inflation, unemployment and the high cost of oil that are likely to weigh on the minds of Sri Lankan voters as much as the fate of stalled peace talks with the Tamil Tiger rebels.

The contest is between Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse, a hardliner toward the rebels, and opposition leader Ranil , a former prime minister who was one of the architects of a 2002 peace plan.

Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, with the Center for Policy Alternatives, says results will largely depend where voter turnout is strongest - because different regions have different concerns.

"In the north and east it is the peace process, in the rest of the country, it is the cost of living with the peace process coming in a close second," he said.

Sri Lanka's north and east have seen the heaviest fighting over nearly 20 years of conflict between the government and the Tamil Tigers, who had demanded independence for the country's ethnic Tamil minority.

In 2002, the rebels signed a cease-fire with the government, which is predominantly made up of ethnic Sinhalese. The rebels dropped their independence demand in favor of greater authority in Tamil-held areas.

But peace talks aimed at resolving the conflict have been stalled for months, raising concerns about a possible return to war.

In Colombo's markets, the different concerns of the two ethnic groups are clear.

In this neighborhood market, a Sinhalese vegetable vendor says a lot of young people are without jobs, or if they have them, it remains difficult to make ends meet. So it does not matter who wins the election, just as long as that situation changes.

But in a Tamil neighborhood, the feeling is different. A man says the ethnic issue is the main problem. If the government does something to end the fighting, all of Sri Lanka's other problems will go away.

The presidential election Thursday comes near the end of a challenging year, marked first by the massive humanitarian crisis generated by the Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed more than 30,000 people in Sri Lanka alone.

Despite billions of dollars in international assistance pledged, analysts say the economy has suffered due to a drop in tourism, bad economic management, and the high cost of oil.

Both candidates have promised to address the nation's economic woes and the faltering peace plan.

Analysts say voter turnout may be lower in ethnic Tamil areas, because of a call to boycott the ballot by some little-known Tamil organizations. Analysts say it is likely those groups are simply fronts for the rebels, who are angry they have failed to win more concessions in the peace process.