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Sri Lanka government, Marxists gain at local polls

Written by: Staff

COLOMBO, Mar 31: Sri Lanka's government and its hardline Marxist allies made early gains as local election results trickled in before dawn today in a poll analysts say could impact on a peace bid with the Tamil Tigers rebels.

Yesterday's vote at local authority level is widely seen as a litmus test of the popularity of the Marxist JVP, who helped President Mahinda Rajapakse to power but insist on a tough line with the Tigers many say is hurting efforts to turn a ceasefire into lasting peace after two decades of civil war.

Any strong gains by the former-militant JVP could increase their influence over Rajapakse as he seeks to sustain peace talks seen vital to avert a return to a war that killed more than 64,000 people before a 2002 truce, analysts say.

And how the fragile peace process fares despite being rocked by a series of deadly attacks will determine how much foreign investors stake on a billion economy striving to recover from the ravages of Asia's tsunami.

''Increased JVP strength ... would make Mahinda's room for manoeuvre on the peace process extremely difficult,'' said Rohan Edrisinha, an analyst at the Centre for Policy Alternatives in Colombo.

The JVP, who back Rajapakse in parliament but are contesting separately, are vehemently opposed to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam's (LTTE) demands for a separate homeland for ethnic Tamils in Sri Lanka's north and east.

NO POLL IN REBEL AREAS Polling has been delayed for six months in and around most Tiger-controlled areas in the northeast due to security fears.

Rajapakse's ruling United Peoples' Freedom Alliance coalition had widely been expected to make inroads into the main opposition United National Party (UNP) dominance of local government following his election in November.

Traditionally voters heavily back the ruling party at local polls because the central government controls council purse strings, and many believe infrastructure projects and public services will be prioritised if aligned with the government.

At the last local polls in 2002, the main opposition United National Party, then in power, won almost all the local authorities.

Rajapakse's party won 4 and the JVP took only one.

With 28 of 266 local authorities counted early on Friday, the government had won 23, the UNP 2 and a rebel-backed coalition of minority Tamil parties had also won 2. Another small Tamil party also won a council.

The JVP had not yet won a council, but had increased its number of seats in most local authorities counted.

The elections commission said turnout was around 55 to 60 percent, slightly lower than at previous local polls, while there was no serious violence that has marred past elections.

Some voters are disillusioned with squabbling parties who have focused their energy on two elections in 5 months, even as hundreds of thousands of people displaced by years of war and the 2004 tsunami yearn for new homes and jobs.

''This is a total waste of money and time. How many elections have we had in the last couple of years? This is just to elect robbers to the council,'' said 71-year-old J.E. Peiris as he queued to vote for the UNP.

Some analysts believe a poor showing by the UNP, which won most local authorities in 2002, could even embolden Rajapakse to go for a general election in a bid to consolidate his party's power -- and ease his dependency on the Marxists and a party of hardline Sinhalese nationalist Buddhist monks.


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