Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Sri Lanka set to give Rajapakse another big victory

Sri Lanka is gearing up for tomorrow's election for a new 225-seat parliament just three months after its presidential election. Opinion polls suggest President Mahinda Rajapakse’s United People's Freedom Alliance will win the elections. They should secure a big majority and retain government following the president’s resounding victory in the 26 January presidential polls. “President Rajapakse’s victory over the LTTE has given him a huge popularity boost,” said Sri Lankan political analyst Rohan Edirsinghe. “The presidential election victory in turn has given his party a boost because most people in Sri Lanka recognise that the presidency is the most powerful office under the Sri Lankan constitution.”

The main opposition the United National Party has accused the ruling party of campaign abuses and said it did not expect a free and fair election. UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe said Rajapakse's administration had used state-owned cars and offices for campaigning and turned the government-run media into a party mouthpiece. "There was a suppression of private media [and] Journalists were attacked and abducted by those connected to the government," Wickremesinghe said. "Editors were arrested and intimidated."

The Government has also extended the country’s emergency laws by another month just two days before the election. The extension is the second since parliament was dissolved in February. The emergency has been in place since August 2005 when Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in was assassinated. Opposition parties have questioned the need to keep the laws active since the military defeat of the LTTE in May last year. The government claims it needs the law to flush out remaining Tigers cadres.

The government is also jittery about the threat posed by jailed former army chief General Sarath Fonseka. A court martial was set to resume its hearings on Tuesday against the 59-year-old Fonseka who lost out to Rajapakse in the January elections. However the BBC has reported it has been adjourned because of an outstanding case lodged with Sri Lanka's Court of Appeal challenging the legality of the courts martial. Another court martial charging the general of breaking army procurement rules is also due to resume on Tuesday but may also be adjourned on the same grounds. Fonseka has been detained since 8 February but is still running in tomorrow’s election as a candidate from the opposition Democratic National Alliance saying that all charges against him are politically motivated.

Fonseka has his supporters. The country’s influential Buddhist monks have said the government would regret its action after police arrested a dozen of their number who demanded the release of Fonseka. The National Bhikku Front accused Rajapakse of committing an "unforgivable sin" when police beat and arrested 12 monks staging a fast outside Colombo’s main railway station in support of Fonseka. NBF head Dambara Amila said "the government will have to pay for this." The monks said they planned a mass rally to keep up pressure on the government.

But Rajapakse has gained the unexpected support of a doctor who drew world attention to civilian deaths during the war last year and who now is contesting the election for a pro-government party. Veerakathipillai Shanmugarajah, 40, was arrested for falsely spreading rebel propaganda following the army's final victory over the Tamil Tigers. Now he's running for parliament for a Tamil party called Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students that is supporting Rajapakse. Shanmugarah now prefers to talk about the future rather than the war. "I believe President Rajapakse is ideally suited to lead and rebuild our country after the war,” he said. “I will work to support him."

There are also signs Rajapakse wants to create a new political dynasty in Sri Lanka as he grooms his eldest son Namal for high office. Namal is contesting the election in the family's home southern constituency of Hambantota. Namal, who turns 24 on Sunday, promotes himself as an ideological successor to his father, and is hoping his father’s personal popularity will rub off on him and ensure a resounding poll win for his ruling Freedom Alliance party. According to his website Namal said he wanted “to protect for future generations the freedom won” by his father. Rajapakse Senior addressing a rally for Namal on Monday and images of the pair have been prominent in local newspapers and television.

The 64-year-old Rajapakse now has a second six year term to bed in his agenda and groom his successor. He and his allies are hoping to get 150 seats in the parliament election which will give him a two-thirds majority and the ability to change the constitution, though he has not signaled his intentions to make any changes yet. In his favour there is a resurgent post-war economy, propelled by a stock market that has gained more than 150 percent in 12 months, as well as accelerated development and foreign investment in government securities. Sri Lankans are likely to reward Rajapakse with a big win though he may find the hard work has just started.

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