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Sri Lanka set for more polls as battle intensifies

COLOMBO (EconomyNext) – Irrespective of who wins the January presidential elections, the country is almost certain to see a parliamentary election by June next year, according to sources on both sides of the political divide.

The common opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena in his 100-day program vows to dissolve parliament on April 23, a move that could lead to a general election by June.

President Mahinda Rajapakse too told close confidants that he would sack parliament and hold a fresh election to clean up his stables where loyalties are in question after the recent spate of defections.

"The country will remain in election mode for the next six to seven months," a top official said.

A source close to the president said he was "deeply hurt" over Sirisena quitting the government and was trying to come to terms with a tough election that he had not anticipated.

When he called the election last month soon after completing four years of his second six-year term, he had no credible challenger, but with Sirisena’s entry the contest has become a do-or-die battle.

Political commentators have compared Sirisena’s move to the defection of the LTTE’s then deputy Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan, alias Karuna, who engineered the collapse of the LTTE’s de facto state.

A psephology enthusiast said Rajapakse would have no difficulty in holding onto the southern and north-western provinces despite the split in his party, but he needs more than two thirds of the vote in those areas to offset declines in the minority vote.

At the height of his popularity in 2010, the president secured more than two thirds only in his home constituency of Hambantota where he bagged 67.21 per cent, humiliating Sajith Premadasa, the chief organiser of the UNP there.

At the January 2015 polls, Rajapakse can count on Galle, Matara, Hambantota, Moneragala, Kegalle, Ratnapura and Kurunegala districts.

Sirisena, on the other hand, could, with strong UNP and JHU backing, secure Colombo, Kalutara, Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, Ampara, Badulla, Polonnaruwa, Battiacalao, Trincomalee, Wanni and Jaffna.

Battle grounds to watch

The battle ground districts are Gampaha, Puttalam, Matale and Anuradhapura.

The ruling UPFA suffered a 11-point decline in Gampaha at the last provincial council election and with former president Chandrika Kumaratunga campaigning for Sirisena in her family stronghold, it could be touch-and-go.

However, not only winning, but recording a substantial margin of victory in Gampaha is crucial for whoever wants to secure the presidency because it has more than a tenth of the country’s voting population there.

Puttalam, with a considerable minority Muslim vote could tilt in favour of the opposition candidate while President Rajapakse may still be able to swing Anuradhapura, from where he launched his re-election campaign.

The JVP’s campaign against Rajapakse could damage him in Matale where a mass grave containing 154 skeletal remains has been linked to several police and military officials who are in the current government.

The JVP claimed that the 154 skeletal remains were those of suspected Marxists activists killed by government forces in the late 1980s when the current defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse and law and order ministry secretary Mahinda Balasuriya were deployed in Matale.

However, the government has denied any involvement of those officers and maintained that the remains date back to the early part of the last century, but investigations are still underway.

Turn out crucial

While incumbency is a factor that is driving young voters away from Rajapakse, he could also use the massive resources of the state to reduce polling in areas where minority Tamils and Muslims are concentrated.

A total turnout of less than 75 per cent favours Rajapakse while Sirisena will have to ensure that people go to the polls in large numbers.

Government restrictions on foreign election monitors travelling to the former war zone could be an ominous sign that there could be voter intimidation witnessed during the early hours of voting at last year’s provincial council elections.

However, it was the presence of a large number of international observers that forced "unidentified men" to withdraw from their locations near polling booths.

Irrespective of who wins what is expected to be a very close fight, Sri Lanka will remain locked in elections for the better part of next year too.

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