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Peace Process Sidelined by Sri Lankan Power Struggle - 2004-02-11

For months, Sri Lanka has been embroiled in a power struggle between the president and prime minister - threatening the country's efforts to end 20 years of fighting with the Tamil Tiger rebels. The crisis reached a climax last week when the president called for parliamentary elections to be held in April - three years early. The poll may do little to put the peace process back on track. With voting just eight weeks away, Sri Lanka is bracing for what could be a bloody and divisive election campaign.

Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu is with Colombo’s independent Center for Policy Alternatives. He says violence orchestrated by political parties is the norm in Sri Lankan elections and police do little to stop it.

"Unfortunately there is no clear evidence to assume that this election would be any different," he said. "There are arguments to indicate that they could be intense and bloody because there is more at stake."

At stake is the potential for peace in Sri Lanka – and who controls how it comes about. The Tamil Tiger guerrilla group has waged a bitter 20-year campaign against the government for autonomy for ethnic Tamils. More than 60-thousand people have died the fighting.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga herself survived an assassination attempt by the Tamil Tigers when campaigning for the presidency in 1999, which cost her an eye. Her father, once prime minister, was assassinated in 1959 by a Buddhist monk – part of a militant Sinhalese faction opposed to making concession to the minority Tamils.

With this background, Ms. Kumaratunga has long been critical of the peace process conducted under Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Even though talks had produced a cease-fire and a concession by Tamils to give up independence in favor of autonomy, Ms. Kumaratunga thought government negotiators were giving too much away too quickly.

In November, she exercised her constitutional powers to take over three government ministries - including defense - considered key to the peace talks.

Speaking national television, the president charged that the prime minister had endangered national security.

"During the last two years, the sovereignty of the state of Sri Lanka, its territorial integrity, and the security of the nation have been placed in grave danger by the acts of willful commission, and other acts of careless omission, by some members of the government," she said.

The government has been at a standstill since. With no compromise on the horizon, President Kumaratunga called for elections to take place April 2nd after she dissolved Parliament Saturday – hoping to resolve the political stalemate.

To many in Sri Lanka, the situation is frustrating because the election for the 225 seats of parliament has no bearing on the presidency - who is elected in a separate poll. By calling the vote, analysts say, Ms. Kumaratunga is hoping to take the parliamentary majority from the prime minister.

If she does, analysts say, her new majority could have grave repercussions on the peace process.

Jehan Perera is with the National Peace Council, a Colombo advocacy group. He says the president’s party has made a temporary but uncomfortable alliance with the Marxist People’s Liberation Front known as the JVP. He says a shift in power to this alliance might derail future talks with the Tamil Tigers, also called the LTTE.

"There is a difference of opinion between the president's party and the JVP, and they will be very far away from what the LTTE wants. That would pose a real challenge to the peace process," he said.

If Prime Minister Wickremesinghe's party wins, analysts warn Sri Lanka could face the same stalemate it has faced for months, with the prime minister controlling Parliament, facing a hostile president.

If that is the case, analyst Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu says he hopes the two sides will recognize that the deadlock cannot go on.

"I think the prime minister and his party would want to argue that they have scored both a moral and political victory and they have a mandate from the people … and hope that the president would lay off," he said.

No matter who wins the elections, there is still much to be done before peace in Sri Lanka is assured. Disputes over a proposed power-sharing arrangement prompted the Tamil Tigers to walk out of peace talks in April 2003, and they have not met directly with government representatives since. But that is an issue that will have to wait until the political turmoil in the capital is resolved.

Tamil Tiger leaders say they will abide by the cease-fire deal they made with the prime minister with the help of Norwegian mediators in February 2002. But they warn that the political turbulence in the capital could lead to a return to war.