COLOMBO (Reuters) - Nearly 80,000 police and soldiers fanned out across Sri Lanka on Wednesday to guard ballot boxes on the eve of a parliamentary poll that should deepen the president’s dominance and bring some political stability.
Thursday’s election of the Indian Ocean island nation’s 225-member parliament will be the first since a three-decade war with the Tamil Tiger separatists ended nearly a year ago, with a victorious President Mahinda Rajapaksa vowing economic rebirth.
A total of 7,620 candidates representing 36 parties and 301 independent groups are competing in a poll that most expect will give Rajapaksa and his ruling United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) a parliamentary majority.
More than 14 million voters are registered to cast ballots. The campaigns have been relatively calm by Sri Lankan standards, with more than 340 acts of violence and one death.
“To tell the truth, we’d like if the current government comes back. Lots of things have changed. The 30-year-old war is over,” said J. Susirkumar, a 36-year-old Tamil, in the capital Colombo.
The war deeply divided Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority and the Sinhalese majority from which Rajapaksa hails, like all of the country’s leaders since independence from Britain in 1948.
But that part of Sri Lanka’s national narrative has been largely absent from campaigns. Tamil parties have been able to campaign unhindered for the first time since the end of the war, now that the Tigers are no longer there to dictate who runs.
Rajapaksa, 64, is fresh from a resounding re-election to a second six-year term in January, where he polled 58 percent against 40 percent for retired General Sarath Fonseka, the war hero the opposition rallied behind who was later arrested.
Though still in military custody facing two courts-martial, Fonseka is running for parliament and remains a rallying cry for the opposition, even though the parties that backed him as a single coalition are now contesting separately.
TWO-THIRDS OR NOT?
Rajapaksa and his allies are aiming to win 150 seats, or the two-thirds majority he needs to change the constitution — though he has not made public his intended amendments.
Ranil Wickremesinghe, the former prime minister who is now leader of the main opposition United National Party, said Rajapaksa had no chance of succeeding on that front.
“Under the present system, no party can get two-thirds,” he told a press conference. “Give us the majority and after that we will form the government and develop the country. We will ... invite all other parties to join with us.”
The UNP and other opposition parties, along with Western governments and rights groups, say Rajapaksa’s administration was either involved with, or turned a blind eye to, rights violations against critics including kidnapping, arrests and even killings.
The government denies that and says the opposition is trying curry favour with Western governments it accuses of trying to undermine Sri Lanka.
Rajapaksa and his allies have positioned themselves as shepherds of development and a resurgent post-war economy, propelled by a stock market that has gained more than 150 percent since 2009 and foreign investment in government securities.
However, the end of the war did not bring immediate stability because Rajapaksa made clear he would call early elections, and Western countries and the United Nations have kept up pressure over possible war crimes and human rights violations.
With the rupee currency on the rise, bond dealers say they expect steady foreign demand for government securities of 18 months’ tenure or less to pick up, especially after the vote.
One concern foreign investors have always had is the government’s big public sector spending, which has often hampered growth. The central bank reported GDP growth of 3.5 percent last year, and forecast 6.5 percent this year.
The government has pledged to curb its deficit under a $2.6 billion (1.7 billion pound) International Monetary Fund loan, but on Monday said it would renegotiate the stringent targets after it missed the first year’s goal with 9.8 percent deficit last year.
Additional reporting by Waruna Karunatilake; Writing by Bryson Hull; Editing by Nick Macfie