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Sri Lanka Elections Marred by Bloodshed - 2001-12-05


Following a bitter and violent campaign, Sri Lankans are choosing legislators for the second time in 14 months. Election Day has been marred by bloodshed and allegations of vote-rigging across much of the island. Despite a massive police and military presence, violence continues in Sri Lanka, where voters are choosing members of parliament for the second time in just 14 months.

At least 10 murders had been reported by noon, Wednesday, bringing the number of killings during the campaign to 48, according to the independent Center for Monitoring Election Violence. Police sources say there were more than two thousand incidents of election-related violence, during the campaign.

Violence has occurred in most parts of the island. It has been accompanied by isolated allegations of ballot-stuffing and more widespread accounts of intimidation and the stealing of polling cards. Independent election observers - including a team from the European Union - say that all major political parties have been involved with election malpractice.

The largest players in Sri Lanka's general election are President Chandirka Kumaratunga's ruling People's Alliance and a coalition of opposition parties called the United National Front. Polls show the polling will be close. Most observers say it will be difficult for either party to gain an outright majority in the 225-seat legislature. Without a majority, the opposition is counting on support from an alliance of minority Tamil parties, while the People's Alliance will depend on the marxist People's Liberation Front.

In a move criticized by EU monitors, the army blocked access to many polling areas in the north and east of country, claiming rebels planned to disrupt the voting. The EU says some 130,000 Tamil voters were disenfranchised by the move.

Major issues for Sri Lankan voters include finding an end to the country's ongoing civil war and boosting the island's sagging economy. Tamil separatist rebels have been fighting since 1983 for an independent homeland in Sri Lanka's north and east. The rebels maintain effective control over approximately one-third of the island nation.

Opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe promises to enter negotiations to end the fighting and to salvage an economy facing near zero growth. The ruling party claims Mr. Wickremesinghe has entered a secret pact with the rebels that will divide the nation.

Polls show more than 70 percent of Sri Lankans want a negotiated settlement to the war, which has claimed more than 64,000 lives.

Wednesday's snap election comes after months of political turmoil which saw waves of defection from the ruling People's Alliance. Facing a no-confidence motion in parliament, President Kumaratunga dissolved the legislature and called the elections.

Regardless of who wins Wednesday's polls, Mrs. Kumaratunga will remain in power, with five years left in her term. Even if the opposition wins, she will retain her power to suspend parliament for 60 days at any time and can dissolve the body again after one year.

The results should be known by Thursday.

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