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Vote Count Under Way in Sri Lankan Parliamentary Elections

  • Anjana Pasricha

Sri Lankan election officials began counting votes Friday from parliamentary elections widely expected to hand President Mahinda Rajapaksa's ruling alliance an easy victory.

In Sri Lanka, polls held to choose a new parliament are expected to consolidate President Mahinda Rajapaksa's dominance on the country's political landscape. The elections are being held months after the president was re-elected and nearly a year after the end of a quarter century long separatist insurgency.

Thousands of soldiers stood guard as people voted for Sri Lanka's 225-member parliament Thursday.

Voting was slow in the Tamil-dominated north of the country, which is recovering from a long drawn out civil war led by Tamil Tiger rebels.

After casting his vote in his village in the southern Hambantota district, President Mahinda Rajapaksa told state television that only a strong parliament can carry development forward after the end of the civil conflict.

The president, who was re-elected in January, is riding a wave of popularity since his government inflicted a crushing defeat on the rebels last year.

The head of Colombo's National Peace Council, Jehan Perera, says the President hopes his popularity will hand his United People's Freedom Alliance a big majority and give him a free hand to bring in changes he wants. The coalition currently holds 128 seats.

"The president actually is aiming for a two thirds majority in parliament, and the reason for that is probably he would like to change the constitution… Perhaps the president hopes to get rid of the two term limitation on the presidency," Perera said.

The opposition has vowed not to allow him to tighten his grip on parliament.

But the opposition has split following the defeat of the candidate behind whom it united in presidential elections, General Sarath Fonseka. The general is now in jail on charges of planning his political career before resigning as army chief and illicit arms procurement.

General Fonseka is contesting the polls, but the biggest opposition party, and the main Tamil alliance is no longer backing him.

As a result, the ruling alliance is expected to emerge way ahead of the others, although it may not get a two thirds majority.

But this has raised some worries in a country where the president has been accused by critics of suppressing dissent and the media.

"If he gets the majority that he is projected to do we would in effect be a one-party state, and that will give him carte-blanche to be able to do whatever he wants to more or less. And that is the worrying thing, in terms of whether it will have a debilitating impact on democracy in the country," said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, who heads the independent Center for Policy Alternatives in Sri Lanka.

Independent elections monitors reported many incidents of minor violence and voter intimidation. Most complaints were made against the alliance led by the President.

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