Left-wing alliance set for win in Sri Lanka: Tim McGirk in Colombo reports that after 17 years of rule the United National Party faces defeat in today's poll

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AT THE finish of an election trail strewn with corpses and enlivened by an operatic family feud, Sri Lankans vote today for a new parliament. The left-wing party of Chandrika Kumaratunga stands poised to break the 17-year monopoly of the ruling United National Party (UNP).

Over 30,000 army and police will be guarding the polling booths to protect voters from political thugs and from the spectre of terrorist attacks by Tamil insurgents, who have seized an entire third of this island. A 24-hour curfew may be imposed tonight to contain the expected violence, once the votes are tallied and the cheap arak liquor begins to flow.

Mrs Kumaratunga, 48, an erudite and charismatic widow with the added advantage of belonging to Sri Lanka's political dynasty of the Bandaranaikes, overcame a messy quarrel with her mother and brother to emerge as the leader of the Peoples' Alliance (PA), a coalition of 11 left-wing parties.

She is mounting a tenacious assault on the UNP, which in recent years has dominated the island's politics through corruption and fear. Of the 20 party workers killed during this month-long campaign, 18 belonged to the PA.

The UNP never recovered from the assassination of President Ranasinghe Premadasa in May 1993. He was blown up by a Tamil suicide bomber. An autocrat and a street-brawler who elbowed his way to the leadership of a right- wing party controlled by wealthy, high-caste Sinhalese, Premadasa was a loner who did not groom heirs. He was replaced as president by the monkish D B Wijetunge, who most Sri Lankans find dull compared to Mrs Kumaratunga's peppery wit.

Mrs Kumaratunga, whose mother and father were both prime ministers, also lured over the island's Muslims and several factions representing the Tamil ethnic minority who in the past had sided with the UNP. In the countryside, few families are unscathed by the UNP's reign of terror in 1988 against left-wingers in which, according to human-rights groups, over 30,000 Sri Lankans were killed by state death-squads. Mrs Kumaratunga has pledged to these families that she will hunt down and punish the killers.

It is unlikely that either party will be able to solve the ethnic war between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil separatists, which has claimed over 20,000 lives and is costing over dollars 400m ( pounds 260m) a year. Mr Wijetunge is said to favour an army offensive against the Tamil Tigers' base on the Jaffna peninsula, even though this would cause heavy civilian casualties among the population.

Mrs Kumaratunga said she is prepared to negotiate with the separatist leaders and possibly re- draw the island's map, with more autonomy for Tamils in the north and part of the eastern provinces. But the Tigers' chief, Velupillai Prabakharan, shows no interest in a truce and has threatened to sabotage today's polls.

Ten of the 225 parliamentary seats being contested belong to the Jaffna district, under Tamil Tiger control.

The district has 600,000 voters, but since the insurgents will shoot any official who tries to nail together a polling booth, the fate of these 10 seats will be decided by only 20,000 voters. Most of them are Tamil refugees living safely in the south or on a string of little islands under army control.

These 10 parliamentary seats may prove crucial in the event of a tight race, as many observers think it will be. The PA is expected to win in the south and east, while the UNP may be able to cling to their stronghold of Colombo and the Sinhalese Buddhist heartland of the central highlands.

(Graphic omitted)

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