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    Sri Lanka Sets Presidential Election for January 26

    A war-hero general is widely expected to challenge the popular incumbent president.

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    Sri Lanka has announced it will hold a presidential election in just under two months. A war-hero general is widely expected to challenge the popular incumbent President.

    Sri Lankan government officials say the date for the presidential election is January 26.

    That leaves little time for formal campaigning, but the island nation's opposition parties have been anticipating a formal announcement for some months.

    President Mahinda Rajakpaksa is hoping for a mandate from the people in the wake of this year's crushing defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which ended a devastating quarter-century civil war.

    The two main, rival opposition parties are indicating they will support Sarath Fonseka. The just-retired General led the Army during the final three-year offensive against the LTTE rebels.

    Rifts emerged between the president and the general after the war's end with General Fonseka accusing Mr. Rajapaksa of sidelining him and falsely suspecting him of planning a coup.

    A top analyst, Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu, who heads the Center for Policy Alternatives in Colombo, tells VOA News General Fonseka could pose a strong challenge to the President.

    "That calculation is based on General Fonseka also being able to claim credit for the victory against the LTTE," said Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu. "So in terms of the wider population and particularly the majority [Sinhalese] community I think the two are seen as people who are architects of the victory over the LTTE. The issue is going to be as to how the minorities are going to vote."

    The Tamil and Muslim minorities make up about one-fourth of the electorate and thus could hold the balance of power in a close election.

    Analysts say the president could try to increase his support by raising wages for public sector workers and creating new government jobs. But such moves might be difficult under terms recently imposed by the International Monetary Fund as part of a $2.6 billion loan.

    Center for Policy Alternatives' executive director Saravanamuttu expects voters may be looking at other key issues, besides the struggling economy.

    "It looks like the way the campaign is heading at the moment that it's going to be much more based on issues of constitutional reform, qualities and experience in terms of leadership, what happens in regards to the [Tamil-dominated] North and East, as opposed to the economy per se," said Saravanamuttu.

    Mr. Rajapaksa, a left-of-center politician, was elected president in 2005 with the support of Marxists and Sinhalese nationalists.

    Fonseka was the first serving officer to be appointed a four-star general in Sri Lanka. Three years ago he survived an attempt on his life by a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber.


    Steve Herman

    A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

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