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Defections Could Bring Down Sri Lanka Coalition - 2001-10-10

Sri Lanka's fragile ruling coalition looks ready to collapse, following a wave of political defections. Eight lawmakers joined a colleague who defected Tuesday, leaving the government without a majority in Parliament. The moves come one day before a planned confidence vote.

Defections from President Chandrika Kumaratunga's fragile coalition brought angry outbursts and minor scuffles to Sri Lankan's parliament.

Government lawmakers were jeered by their colleagues as they crossed over to the opposition, leaving the President short of a majority in parliament just one day before a planned confidence vote. A government minister and key political ally also resigned from the cabinet.

This is the second confidence crisis to face the ruling People's Alliance since elections one year ago. The government lost its majority after a large defection in June.

Following that crisis, Mrs. Kumaratunga suspended parliament rather than face a confidence test in July. Sri Lankan legislators only got back to work last month after the government forged a temporary alliance with a Marxist party.

The government had said it would survive Thursday's confidence vote. Tuesday, a government spokesman told state-run radio that there were no plans to use the president's executive powers to prevent the vote.

In addition to suspending parliament again, Mrs. Kumaratunga has an option that was not available in July: Now that a year has passed since parliamentary polls, she can dissolve parliament and call fresh elections.

But Sri Lanka elects its executive president for a fixed term, and Mrs. Kumaratunga has five years to go. Analysts say losing Thursday's confidence vote would simply force Mrs. Kumaratunga to work with the main opposition United National Party.

Leaders of that party say they want to form what they call a government of National Reconciliation and work with the President to address Sri Lanka's growing list of problems.

First on that list may be finding a way to end the country's 18 year war with Tamil separatists. The war has drained this small island's resources and left more than 64,000 dead.

With or without the confidence vote, Sri Lanka seems set for continued political wrangling that it can ill afford.