Saturday, April 10, 2010

Sri Lanka ruling party wins parliamentary election

Sri Lanka's ruling party cruised to victory Friday in parliamentary elections but fell short of the two-thirds majority that would have allowed President Mahinda Rajapakse to amend the constitution.

Rajapakse's United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) secured 117 seats in the 225-member assembly with another 45 seats left to be declared, results released by the Elections Commissioner showed.

The main opposition United National Party (UNP) won 46 seats.

Rajapakse seized on the result as an endorsement of his own vision, saying: "This outstanding victory is an endorsement of the 'Mahinda Chintana' (Mahinda vision)."

"I asked you for a strong parliament that can meet any challenge.... I sincerely thank you for giving me an unprecedented majority that will help make Sri Lanka an example to the rest of the world," he said in a statement.

Presidential spokesman Chanderapala Liyanage predicted the party would secure at least 24 of the undeclared seats, leaving it just nine seats short of a two-thirds majority.

Thursday's vote was the first parliamentary ballot since government forces defeated Tamil Tiger rebels in May, causing Rajapakse's popularity to surge.

But it was marked by a record low turnout and numerous cases of voter intimidation that resulted in fresh voting being ordered in two of the island's 22 electoral districts.

The re-poll means 16 seats will only be declared on April 19, along with another 29 that are distributed on a proportional representation system.

The widely expected victory will further strengthen Rajapakse's grip, three months after he won a second term as president by an emphatic margin.

His main rival, former army chief Sarath Fonseka, contested Thursday's poll from behind bars but his party secured just five seats.

Fonseka was arrested just weeks after the presidential vote and is undergoing court martial.

The main Tamil National Alliance won 12 seats.

Rajapakse had been hoping for a two thirds majority that would allow him to tinker with the constitution, which currently limits presidents to two successive terms.

The opposition UNP was non-committal about the outcome.

"We are not challenging the legality of those who are elected," UNP spokesman Tissa Attanayake told reporters. "But we must stress that there were serious violations in the run-up to the elections."

For many Sri Lankans, it was the first legislative poll in which they could vote without fear of Tamil Tiger violence and suicide attacks.

Analysts said the record low turnout of less than 55 percent would take the shine off the ruling party's victory.

"People have sent a message," said political analyst Victor Ivan. "They are fed up with politicians and their deception. That is why nearly half of the electorate did not bother to vote."

Human rights campaigner and political analyst Nimalka Fernando said the low turnout would undermine the new government's position.

"The result does not give moral authority to the government because half of the electorate did not vote," Fernando said. "With the legitimacy undermined, the government will not be able to go for any sweeping reforms."

Sethmini Chathurika, 28, said she had voted for Rajapakse's party because it had succeeded in ending the conflict with the Tamil Tigers.

"The president has plans to build the country. I think he deserves a parliament to implement those plans," Chathurika said.

Rajapakse's nationalistic rhetoric appeals to his majority Sinhalese community, but has been criticised by rights groups who accuse him of cronyism and suppressing dissent.

Opposition parties lost cohesion after Fonseka's arrest and went into the parliamentary election with little hope of victory.

"I hope the government uses the mandate of a stronger parliament to push investment-friendly reforms," said Srimal Abeyratne, head of the economics department at the University of Colombo.


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