Sri Lankans Go to Polls in Presidential Election

Sri Lankans vote Thursday in a close presidential race. The election comes as the country grapples with a range of problems, including the distribution of tsunami aid. But political analysts say at heart, it's referendum on the peace process in an ongoing ethnic conflict.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Thousands of troops and armed police are out in force in Sri Lanka today where voters are electing a new president. The balloting comes as the country faces a range of problems. There are delays in the distribution of tsunami aid. Sri Lanka was one of the country's most heavily affected. There's also a faltering peace process, and NPR's Philip Reeves reports that the economy is also a major issue.

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PHILIP REEVES reporting:

Not so long ago, this was called the Pearl of the East. Sri Lanka was seen as a utopia, an alluring tropical island rich in tea plantations, covered in coconut palms and ringed by golden beaches sloping down to the warm Indian Ocean. Voters going to the polls today know a harsher kind of country, one which is blighted by an ethnic conflict between the Sinhalese majority and minority Tamils seeking to establish a separate homeland in the island's north.

In the capital, voters seemed eager to take part in an election which Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, director of a think tank called the Center for Policy Alternatives, says is about fundamental issues.

Mr. PAIKIASOTHY SARAVANAMUTTU (Director, Center for Policy Alternatives): The resumption of the peace process, negotiations with regard to core political issues: Is it going to be unitary state or is it going to be federal? All of those questions are involved, and, indeed, underlying that is as to whether the situation of no war, no peace that we have at the present moment, as to whether that can hold, or whether it would snap, and, indeed, a return to hostilities, limited or otherwise.

REEVES: Thirteen candidates are running but the election's considered a two-horse race. It's a contest between the prime minister, Mahinda Rajapakse, and his predecessor, Ranil Wickremesinghe, now leader of the opposition. Both men are Sinhalese. Both say they want peace, though their strategies differ. Rajapakse says he won't divide the island. Any autonomous Tamil area in the north and east will be under a central or unitary government. He's allied with Sinhalese hard-liners who detest the Tamil Tigers, or LTTE, the militants leading the fight for autonomy.

Some believe Tamil hard-liners actually want him to win to allow them to continue the fight. Wickremesinghe's generally seen as more dovish. He brokered the truce between the Sri Lankan government and the Tigers in 2002 after nearly two decades in which more than 60,000 people lost their lives. Though much abused, the cease-fire is still in place. Wickremesinghe wants a return to peace talks and advocates autonomy for Tamils within a federal state.

Onthachimadam is a Tamil village on Sri Lanka's east coast. The Tamil Tigers wield much influence in this part of the island where there are still sporadic killings and bombings. Villagers wiling away an afternoon playing cards were reluctant to reveal their hand. They wouldn't say whether they'd obey a call to boycott the election issued by front organizations for the Tamil Tigers, but they were clear about who they won't be voting for. Sinitabi Papmaraja(ph) is a fish wholesaler.

Mr. SINITABI PAPMARAJA: (Through Translator) If Mahinda Rajapakse comes into power, nothing good will happen to the Tamil people. Basically, whoever is willing to help the Tamil people will be welcomed.

REEVES: Last December, this part of Sri Lanka was devastated by the tsunami. More than 30,000 people along the island's coast died in the disaster. Many of the survivors still complain about the distribution of aid and the pace of reconstruction. But there has been considerable rebuilding, and outside the affected areas, most of the country's moved on. These days, much of the public has other economic worries like the rising cost of living, high inflation and the stultifying effect of the conflict.

Saman Kelegama of the Institute of Policy Studies says the economy won't realize its potential unless the next president achieves a popular consensus, that the time has come for a lasting peace.

Mr. SAMAN KELEGAMA (Institute of Policy Studies): Oh, it is very important to us, because, with the war, if we were able to achieve a ...(unintelligible) growth rate close to about 5 percent. Without the war, we could really do well.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Colombo.

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