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Sri Lanka's President Moves to End Political Dispute, Calls for Early Elections - 2004-02-08


Sri Lanka's president has called for new elections three years early. The move is seen as an attempt to end a political crisis that began late last year.

After dissolving Sri Lanka's 225-member parliament late Saturday night, President Chandrika Kumaratunga called for elections on April 2.

The move is being widely seen as an attempt to end months of feuding and a political deadlock with her main rival, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is from a different party.

Ms. Kumaratunga precipitated a crisis in November, when she exercised her constitutional power to take over three ministries, including defense, which had been under the prime minister's control.

Representatives of the two sides have met several times, but failed to find a way for the president and prime minister to work together. They had hoped to avoid new parliamentary elections, which many believe could be violent. Elections were not due until 2007.

On a recent visit to the Indian capital, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Foreign Minister Tyronne Fernando, an ally of Mr. Wickremesinghe, said new polls would not change the political deadlock.

"That would be extremely divisive, would lead to more violence, and is no solution, because we will probably be back where we are," he said. "And the president won't change."

No matter what the outcome of the parliamentary election, the president remains in office, because she is elected in a different poll.

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe's party has the most seats in parliament - a situation the president would like to reverse. But analysts say if the president fails to win a majority, little will change.

"A lot, I think, is going to depend on the campaign to create a momentum or swing towards one side of the other....," said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu of the Center for Policy Alternatives, a Colombo think tank. "Otherwise we do end up sort of having gone around in a circle and coming back where we started."

The Tamil Tiger rebels will be closely watching the election. The rebels are the source of much of the friction between the president and prime minister.

Ms. Kumaratunga charges that Mr. Wickremesinghe has been too soft on the rebels in talks aimed at ending their 20-year war for greater rights for the ethnic Tamil minority.

The rebels signed a cease-fire with Mr. Wickremesinghe nearly two years ago, but peace talks have been stalled for almost a year. The rebels have warned that war could resume if the political crisis in Colombo is not resolved.