Sri Lankan President defies bomb injuries to make poll appeal on TV

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The Independent Online
SRI LANKA'S President, Chandrika Kumaratunga, sought a new term of office yesterday in an election held only three days after she narrowly escaped assassination at the hands of a suicide bomber.

Mrs Kumaratunga appeared on state television on Monday night to proclaim her defiance of the terrorists who tried to kill her. Her right eye was bandaged and she was still clearly in shock.

Yesterday, Sri Lanka went to the polls to decide whether she or her rival, Ranil Wickremesinghe - or one of 11 other candidates - should be Sri Lanka's next president. Most commentators agreed that the Tamil Tigers, the organisation that is supposed to be behind the assassination attempt, has accidentally done her a favour. She is expected to garner a sympathy vote that could be enough to return her to power.

The public's compassion for her suffering is not the only factor: there is also admiration for her courage - displayed on the television broadcast - and respect for her luck. Of a list that includes the late Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and an earlier Sri Lankan president, Mrs Kumaratunga is the first political leader attacked by the Tamil Tigers whom they have failed to kill.

Despite fears of more bombs, the turn-out by Sri Lanka's electorate of 11 million was about 70 per cent. Fifty thousand police were deployed, but in the Sinhalese-dominated south of the island, apart from dealing with isolated cases of attempted vote rigging, there was not a lot for them to do.

In the northern Jaffna peninsula, mostly populated by Tamils but under government control since 1995, turn-out was said to be low, and across the north there were numerous allegations of ballot-box stuffing, intimidation and person-ation. Four people were reported killed.

Soon after polls closed at 4pm, a curfew was clamped on the capital, Colombo, to reduce the risk of further terrorist incidents.

The high turn-out in Sinhalese majority areas is a tribute to the strength of democracy in Sri Lanka, despite more than 16 years of civil war. It is especially impressive given that there is not very much for the electorate to get excited about.

Mrs Kumaratunga has done much to restore human rights, which were in abeyance when she came to power, and despite the war the country's economy continues to chug along at a growth rate of 4 to 5 per cent a year. Also, despite the war, the tourist industry, vital to the economy, is still buoyant.

But lasting peace is as elusive as ever. "The last election, in 1994, offered more hope of peace," one local analyst said. "Mrs Kumaratunga came to power as a political leader prepared to take the bull by the horns and negotiate peace with the LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, as the Tamil Tigers are formally known]. And the LTTE reciprocated, telling Tamils they should vote for her."

Negotiations failed, however, and the vigorous military offensive that was Mrs Kumaratunga's replacement strategy is also on the rocks. Two years of painfully slow and expensive advances by the army were wiped out last month when the Tigers' cadres, based in the far north- east, staged a devastating counter-attack.

Mrs Kumaratunga still talks peace, but is plainly in no mood to conciliate her bloodthirsty enemy. Mr Wickremesinghe, in contrast, has offered peace talks with the Tigers, but on Saturday night a hand grenade was hurled during his party's final rally of the campaign, killing 18 people. That is seen as the Tigers' contemptuous reply to Mr Wiskremesinghe's olive branch.

Sri Lanka wants peace, but it is becoming clear that whoever may be in power, the Tamil Tigers are not really interested in cutting a deal.

"They have very short-term horizons," one political commentator explained. "It's said that they do not like any ceasefire to go beyond 100 days, in case the fighters get demoralised and start demanding ice cream."