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Death hangs over election in Sri Lanka: Tim McGirk reports from Colombo on the blood-spattered campaign which ends tomorrow

IT IS difficult to find a candidate in the Sri Lankan elections who does not have a murder in the family. On this seemingly tranquil island of coral sand beaches and sleeping Buddhas, politics is a deadly game.

It is also a game played by widows. Campaigning in tomorrow's general election are four women whose husbands, all politicians, have been assassinated either by terrorists or rivals. Nor is chivalry much in evidence. Several of the widows believe they too could die as viciously as their men did.

Foremost among them is Chandrika Kumaratunga, who is leading the Peoples' Alliance effort to unseat the United National Party (UNP), which has ruled Sri Lankan politics for the past 17 tumultuous years. Her prime minister father, S W R D Bandaranaike, was shot dead in 1959, and so was her husband in 1988. Now, as her party stands on the brink of sweeping the UNP out of office, she is convinced that her foes have hired two contract killers to finish her off.

'I ask myself why I'm doing this,' said Mrs Kumaratunga yesterday. She is an earthy woman, 48, with a wry laugh and has a weakness for saris of vivid turqouise and gold. 'Afraid is not the word. But I'm constantly aware that I could be killed in the next few minutes.' She claimed the police stopped their hunt for the two would-be assassins when the trail seemed to be heading towards the Colombo palace of the UNP President of Sri Lanka, D B Wijetunga.

The UNP have dismissed Mrs Kumaratunga's allegations as paranoia, yet the ruling party has a legacy of thuggishness that lingers from the Premadasa era when tens of thousands were killed in a crackdown on island left-wingers. Nearly all the 19 murder victims in this month-long campaign for 225 parliamentary seats were workers of Mrs Kumaratunga's party, gunned down on jungle roads.

The race is close. Some opinion polls predict a hung parliament; if so, it will be the first since Sri Lanka achieved independence from Britain in 1948. But the left-wing Peoples' Alliance claim that if they do not win it is because the voting will be rigged against them. The excuse is convenient but perhaps correct. Many of the senior police and army officers, who will oversee the voting, are worried that if Mrs Kumaratunga wins, she will prosecute them for atrocities during the 1988-89 left-wing uprising.

Even if the balloting is fair, Mrs Kumaratunga is not guaranteed a victory. Her Peoples' Alliance has been weakened by a three-way dynastic struggle. The Bandaranaike family has towered over Sri Lanka, but is now wrenched apart by a feud between mother, daughter and son.

The three may live in the same posh estate of colonial mansions, called Rosmead Place in Colombo, but Mrs Kumaratunga has few words to share with her mother - a former prime minister, now 78 - and even fewer with her Oxford-educated brother, Anura. He crossed over to the UNP party in a huff when it became apparent that his charismatic sister was gaining control of the party.