After 17 years in opposition, the PA, led by Chandrika Kumaratunga, daughter of two former prime ministers, stood on the edge of victory over the autocratic UNP which she claimed had tried to assassinate her during last month's violent campaign.
Her party won 105 out of 225 parliamentary seats, while President D B Wijetunga's UNP took 94 seats. If Mrs Kumaratunga patches togther a majority among the Muslims, the Tamils and the far-left parties, it could be a weak and unstable government. A UNP government would be just as fragile. The President is expected to summon Mrs Kumaratunga to his residence today for consultations.
Authorities yesterday extended an island-wide curfew by 24 hours to avoid any violence arising from political uncertainty. In the capital, Colombo, where police and troops guard every major crossroad, the roads along the seafront are empty except for army jeeps. The precautions are to prevent Tamil separatists, who vowed to thwart the elections, from setting off bombs in the capital. More than 4,000 British holiday-goers are trapped by the curfew, most of them confined to seaside hotels.
Through an anomaly caused by the island's civil war between the Sinhalese and the Tamil ethnic minority - which meant that 20,000 voters in the besieged Jaffna district determined the fate of 10 crucial seats - the third most powerful party in Sri Lanka is the Eelam Peoples' Democratic Party. It is more a paramilitary force, armed by the outgoing UNP-government, than a political party. Human rights monitors allege that the EPDP was used by the late President Premadasa to dispose of his enemies. Its revolutionary chief wears two pistols and likes to scare visitors by keeping a live grenade on his desk.
Mrs Kumaratunga is most likely to gain backing from the Muslim Congress, which won seven seats. She could win a majority of 113 with the Muslims' support, plus a few independent MPs and an ethnic party, the Tamil United Liberation Front. But the UNP is also courting the Muslims with the lure of cabinet portfolios. It is possible that Mr Wijetunga, using his leverage as President, will try by any means to finagle for his UNP another six-year term. Mr Wijetunga said yesterday he would choose as next prime minister the party leader who 'in his opinion' could best form a government.
The UNP's defeat came despite having the state machinery at its disposal. It also snatched the best party symbol - the elephant - while the PA was represented by a stiff-backed empty chair. More than 20 people died in campaign violence, nearly all members of the PA. But election day was calm. Opposition parties concede that the polling was impartial and fair.
Mrs Kumaratunga, 48, is a quick-witted woman who shied away from politics for as long as she could. Both her prime minister father, SWRD Bandaranaike, and then her husband were assassinated. It was only after the coaxing of her mother, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, that she returned to do battle against the UNP.
She remained the dutiful daughter until the last election campaign began. Her ailing 78-year-old mother was forced to leave for medical treatment in Singapore, and Mrs Kumaratunga emerged as the PA's best crowd-puller. She was more charismatic than her mother, and her fighter's instincts are more finely honed. She had earlier driven her brother, Anura, from the party, but he was snapped up by the UNP and made a cabinet minister.
Under pressure from the PA lieutenants, Mrs Bandaranaike named her daughter as acting leader only a week before elections. Then her son and another daughter tried to persuade her to reverse her decision. Mrs Kumaratunga was left dangling until a compromise was agreed that, if elected, her mother would stand for president. Although a family of wealthy landowners, the Bandaranaikes nationalised the tea estates and private industries in the 1970s. Mrs Kumaratunga learned her politics while studying in Paris. She speaks wistfully of fighting on the barricades during the 1968 student uprising in Paris, but her socialism now is diluted by free-market capitalism.
In a show of solidarity, her mother joined Mrs Kumaratunga to vote in a village near the family home. It was difficult to see either woman, since they were surrounded by bodyguards. Fanatical Tamil suicide bombers are a worry for all Sri Lankan politicians. Tamils killed not only the late president Ranasinghe Premadasa but also India's Rajiv Gandhi.