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Forming Coalition Government May Prove Hard for Sri Lanka's President - 2004-04-04

It was an election that was supposed to settle one of the most bitter political feuds in Sri Lanka's modern history, the rivalry between President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Friday's parliamentary election only gave the president's party a modest victory over that of the prime minister, meaning the president must form a coalition government in order to control parliament and take command of Sri Lanka's peace process. And that may prove hard to do.

With the votes counted, attention in Sri Lanka has shifted from ballots to backrooms, where the bargaining and political horse-trading needed to form a coalition government is underway.

Officials say President Chandrika Kumaratunga's People's Alliance won substantially more seats than the prime minister's United National Party, but not enough to secure a majority.

Now, President Kumaratunga is courting the favor of smaller parties that won seats, like the Tamil National Alliance and the National Heritage Party, which is made up of Buddhist monks. At the same time, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's party is doing the same thing, trying to form parliamentary voting blocks.

But so far, the small parties appear unwilling to help either side. The Venerable Omalpe Sobitha Thero is with the National Heritage Party.

"We do not help to form any government with any party, because both the parties are very much visible and [it is] very clear that they are not acting according to the people who vote for them?," he said. "We stay independent."

Whoever gains control over parliament will be able to help steer Sri Lanka's peace process with the Tamil Tiger guerrilla group. The rebels have fought a 20-year separatist war against the government for greater rights for ethnic Tamils.

President Kumaratunga is known for her hard line against the rebels. In February she called the snap parliamentary election three years early to break months of deadlock with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, who favors a more lenient approach.

Observers say political squabbling has brought peace negotiations to a standstill. The future of the talks was complicated last month when the Tamil Tigers split into two factions, now threatening war against each other.

With the president and the prime minister still at odds, combined with the split within the Tamil Tigers, the LTTE, analysts say Sri Lanka is engaged in a four-way tug-of-war.

Jehan Perera, with the advocacy group the National Peace Council, says Sri Lanka's leaders should work to heal internal rifts.

"Ideally what we should have after the election is a political leadership? that is able to reconcile with its own parliamentary opposition? And maybe that healing type of influence can also be extended to LTTE and its breakaway group," he said.

Friday's parliamentary election was the third poll in four years, and analysts say many people in Sri Lanka are tired of political fights.

Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, who is with the Center for Policy Alternatives, says that fatigue may create serious problems.

"We are also facing a prospect of ungovernability - [an] inability of parties to get together, the electorate not feeling that anyone deserves a resounding mandate?," said Mr. Saravanamuttu. "So there is a pluralism, but it is a pluralism that is sort of anarchic. And that is worrying."

It may take several days before it is clear what coalitions President Kumaratunga or Prime Minister Wickremesinghe have formed, leaving Sri Lankans waiting to see how their votes played out.