COLOMBO, Mar 30 (Reuters) Sri Lankans voted today in local government elections widely seen as a litmus test of the popularity of President Mahinda Rajapakse's hardline Marxist allies that could impact on a fragile peace process.
Polls in and near Tamil Tiger areas across most of the island's north and east have been put back six months on security worries and, with only a handful of frontline areas voting, attention was concentrated on the majority Sinhalese south.
The Marxist JVP backed Rajapakse in last November's presidential election and votes with him in parliament but is contesting local polls separately. Analysts say it wants to increase its control beyond the one council it currently holds.
The JVP, along with the much smaller JHU, a party of Buddhist monks, has long opposed making concessions to the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Keeping JVP support is seen as limiting government options at upcoming peace talks.
''Whether or not people vote on the peace process it will certainly have an impact on it,'' said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives in Colombo. ''How well the JVP does will indicate how much room for manoeuvre Mahinda has.'' The elections commission said around 40 to 45 percent of voters had cast their ballots by midday, lower than at previous local polls. Unlike in some previous years, there was no violence, the commission said.
At the last local polls in 2002, the opposition United National Party, then in power, won almost all councils. JVP took only one. Analysts say the ruling party usually does best and expect the United Peoples' Freedom Alliance, which includes Rajapakse's Sri Lanka Freedom Party, to be the main winner.
Voters said local issues and not the peace process would decide the poll, something analysts says could help the JVP, seen by some as more efficient than the mainstream parties. ''This is just an election for council members,'' 46-year-old factory manager Sudath Anil told Reuters at a polling station. ''It's not about the peace process. We need the councils to build roads, remove garbage and do other sanitary development work.'' Results of the election are due in the early hours of Friday.
MARXIST MARRIAGE IN BALANCE? If the JVP notably expands its share of the vote, analysts say Rajapakse may face a simple choice -- either take a tough line with the LTTE rebels that might cause direct talks next month to collapse, or cut his ties with the Marxists.
A string of suspected rebel attacks in the north and east followed Rajapakse's election, and all but destroyed a 2002 ceasefire and heightened fears of a return to a two-decade civil war that has killed more than 64,000 people.
Tensions have fallen since the two sides agreed to talk, but even before a second round of talks in Geneva in mid-April analysts fear the process is already deadlocked, with each accusing the other of breaking promises made at the first round.
Norway said today that truce broker Erik Solheim and new Norwegian envoy Jon Hanssen-Bauer would make a flying visit to Sri Lanka next week ahead of the talks. The Tigers said they would be willing to attend but might not agree to a date for a third round.
''Things are boiling on all fronts,'' said Janes' Defence Weekly analyst Iqbal Athas. ''I think the LTTE probably will go to Geneva, but they will go to scream so that the world hears them. Whether there is escalation and an outbreak of war will depend on how things shape up there.''