Sri Lankan presidential elections: Two visions, one divided country

Today, one of the nations worst affected by the tsunami goes to the polls to elect a new president. Among the 13 candidates, there are two front-runners - each with a very different view of the future. Justin Huggler reports from Colombo
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On the white, colonial verandah of the Galle Face Hotel, foreign tourists dine as the Indian Ocean breakers roll in beneath them and ceiling fans circle slowly overhead. A speedboat skims across the lagoon as locals sell orange coconuts by the roadside. Every day, flights arrive packed with tourists escaping winter.

But, away from palm-fringed beaches and nightclubs, and largely unnoticed by visitors, Sri Lanka faces a crucial decision. Today, the country votes in an election which may end up making the difference between peace and war. Because, as tourists relax on the beaches, the ceasefire with the Tamil Tiger rebels - that has brought some peace for the past three and half years - has been crumbling. Analysts warn that a return to violence is becoming more likely with every passing day.

Against that backdrop, Sri Lankans will be voting for a new President today. The choice is between the architect of the peace process, and a hardliner who wants to tear it up and take a much tougher approach with the Tigers. Yesterday, the last day before the polls, analysts said the race was too close to call.

To understand how high passions run over this election, you only have to look at the posters. One shows an army helmet with a bullet hole through it. The slogan reads: "Are you going to trust the country to someone who betrayed the army intelligence unit? You are the jury."

One of the main candidates had to cancel his final rally for security fears. He was advised to do so by police, even though he was scheduled to be standing behind bullet-proof glass. The other went ahead with his - but wearing a bullet-proof jacket.

And all this in a country that has barely recovered from last year's Boxing Day tsunami, in which at least 30,000 Sri Lankans died and half a million were made homeless.

The dangers of a return to civil war cannot be underestimated. At least 64,000 people died in the fighting. It was here, not in Baghdad or Jerusalem, that suicide bombing was honed as a militant tactic - and it had nothing to do with Islam. The Tamil Tigers were the world's most effective suicide bombers long before anyone had heard of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have been fighting for an independent ethnic Tamil homeland in the north of Sri Lanka for the past two decades. They are fighting against the rule of the Sinhalese majority, who predominate in the south, which the Tigers say has been repressive towards Tamils.

Many fear that today's vote will, in effect, be a referendum on the peace process that finally brought an end to most of the violence in 2002.

Although 13 candidates are standing, only two have a chance of winning - and they are at loggerheads over the peace process.

On the face of it, Ranil Wickramasinghe's credentials are impressive. Less than a year after he became Prime Minister in 2001, he managed to negotiate the ceasefire with the Tigers. But many in Sri Lanka accuse him of being too willing to cave in to the Tigers' demands. By 2004, he was so at odds with the current President, Chandrika Kumaratunga, that she engineered the collapse of his government.

The man he is up against for the presidency is the man who replaced him as Prime Minister: Mahinda Rajapaksa, a lawyer married to a former Ms Sri Lanka who describes himself on his own website as a "rebel with a cause".

Mr Rajapaksa has announced that he is opposed to any form of autonomy for Tamil areas - the Tigers' central demand. He says he wants to renegotiate the ceasefire on new, tougher terms and has hinted that he is not happy with the involvement of Norwegians as neutral brokers in the peace talks and wants them out.

But Mr Rajapaksa was not always such a hardliner. At one point he was a supporter of a negotiated peace, and some have accused him of putting on the guise of a hardliner to win votes.

South of Colombo, where the palm groves end at the edge of the beach, lie the ruins of the village of Akurala, devastated in the tsunami. It was here that at least 1,500 people died when the train they were travelling on was suddenly trapped in the waters of the tsunami, in what is believed to be the world's worst train disaster. The survivors of the village are still living in wooden huts that were intended only as temporary shelters. A sign by the road reads in English: "Stop! Survive us" (sic). And here you can see how this election has divided Sri Lankans.

"Rajapaksa's no good," says one woman. "If he wins we'll die in these wooden huts. The government got millions of dollars of aid from the foreign countries for the tsunami and they put it all in the bank. They didn't give it to us."

She lost four children in the tsunami as well as her mother and brother. The family lost the tuk-tuk (a three-wheeled motorised taxi) they had saved for years to buy and which was their only source of income. Now she and her husband are both jobless. The hut she lives in with her husband and three surviving children leaks.

"You should come here when it rains," she says. She blames Mr Rajapaksa as Prime Minister for the conditions they are living under. "It is only the tourists who give us any money," says the woman. "They stop when they are passing and give us some money to help. If the tourists ran for President, they would be elected. But why should we vote for Rajapaksa? He's done nothing for us."

Not everyone agrees. Her brother-in-law, a fisherman, cuts in angrily. "I will vote for Ramakapsa," he says.

He is not happy with the aid the tsunami survivors have received from the government but he says: "Voting for Ranil [Wickramasinghe] is the same as voting for Prabhakaran" - the leader of the Tamil Tigers.

Kaluachchi Chaminda, a fellow fisherman, agrees. Mr Chaminda does not even have a temporary hut. His wife and all his children died in the tsunami. Now he is alone, and homeless. He roams around, sleeping on the floor of friends' huts or in the local Buddhist temple.

"I am angry with Rajapaksa because they did nothing for us," he says. "But the problem with Ranil is that we fear if he comes to power he will give in to the Tamil Tigers. I fear, if he wins, the country will be divided. That is more important than dealing with the tsunami."

Mr Ramapaksa has retained his popularity among tsunami survivors despite a scandal in which it emerged that some aid sent from abroad had been transferred directly to a private account set up to provide relief in his home town of Hambantota instead of being distributed through the treasury.

But not all the tsunami survivors are engaged by the elections. In the Korala Wella suburb of Colombo, where the wooden temporary shelters are huddled close together along sandy streets by the seashore like a scene out of Dickens, and the trains still call at the ruined station, Shriyayami Fernando says she will not vote. Her only child survived the tsunami, only to be hit by a minister's car and killed earlier this year. She received 25,000 rupees (£145) in compensation. "I'm fed up with elections," she says. "I shan't go to the polling station to vote. None of them have come to see us."

Other survivors in the area say they will vote, but are not enthusiastic. "It's been 11 months. Still we have received no help from the government, nothing," said Ennet Pieris. "Why vote for either of them. We haven't got anything from either of them."

Many spoke of their concern over the rising cost of living. Despite the success of the tourism industry, the Sri Lankan economy is still in a dire condition, crippled by the vast military expenses accrued from years of fighting. Economic concerns will play a major role in today's vote.

So divided are Sri lankans over the election that many are predicting the election may come down to an unlikely kingmaker: the Tamil Tigers. Many analysts say the result may depend on whether the Tigers allow Sri Lankans living in the areas they control to vote. There are no polling stations in Tiger territory, but in past elections the Tigers have allowed residents to cross into government-held territory and vote there.

Among Tamils, support is very high for Mr Wickramasinghe, seen as almost the only Sinhalese politician to take their demands seriously. One Tamil in Colombo, Sashi Kumar Nadarajah, said he had spent hours sending SMS text messages to everyone he knew telling them to vote for Mr Wickramasinghe. He did so at his own expense.

"If anyone can do anything, he can do it," he says. "Look at what happened when he was Prime Minister. He came in and he changed everything. There are no more checkpoints in Colombo. In the old days I was put in jail on suspicion just because I am a Tamil."

If the Tamils in Tiger-controlled areas are allowed to vote, many believe that could be enough to elect Mr Wickramasinghe. On the face of it, it is in the Tigers' interest to allow their people to vote. But they have been sending conflicting signals.

The reason may have something to do with a startling, apparent admission made by a member of Mr Wickramasinghe's party to a Tamil newspaper a week or so ago. For a long time the Tigers have accused Mr Wickramasinghe's previous government of engineering the split of a faction in the east from the Tigers, led by the renegade Colonel Karuna. The authorities and Mr Wickramasinghe have denied it. But in the newspaper interview, a senior member of his party suddenly boasted of having caused a split in the Tigers.

Today's election also marks the end of a dynasty. When the outgoing President Kumaratunga steps down, it will not only be the end of her 11 years in office. Her family has been at the centre of Sri Lankan politics since the 1950s, when her father SWRD Bandaranaike was Prime Minister.

After he was assassinated in 1959 - when Ms Kumaratunga was only 14 years old - her mother, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, became the world's first female prime minister.

Until today, Ms Kumaratunga has dominated politics here. They say that if the law allowed her to run again, she would win easily. In fact, she did not want to let go of office and tried to stay on for another year, but the Supreme Court ruled that she had had her two terms and had to go.

In recent years she has often appeared to change her position drastically, but somehow she has managed to steer something of a middle course between Mr Wickramasinghe's conciliatory approach to the Tamil Tigers and the hardliners.

Some observers fear that, without her there to balance the two, Sri Lankan politics will become completely polarised on the issue.

Meanwhile, down amid the wooden shanties of the tsunami survivors at Korala Wella, Ms Pieris shrugs. "We will vote for them and they will live in luxury," she says. "We will suffer."


Mahinda Rajapaksa, Prime Minister, United People's Freedom Alliance

Left-leaning, with strong ties to Buddhist clergy and Sinhalese nationalists. Launched presidential campaign by rejecting demands for Tamil autonomy. Has also vowed to review the 2002 ceasefire and indicated that Norway will no longer play a role as peace-broker. He opposes privatisation, favouring subsidy schemes and protecting rural livelihoods.


Ranil Wickramasinghe, Opposition Leader, United National Party

Right-of-centre former prime minister from a leading political family with strong media connections. Pledged to uphold current ceasefire agreement, which he helped draw up in 2001. Credited with pushing the country through an impressive economic transformation during his last premiership, he is generally backed by the business community.