11/17/2005, 00.00
SRI LANKA
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Presidential elections over, Tamil boycott vote

Low turnout in Tamil Tiger-controlled north-eastern areas might affect the tight race between the two main contenders. Catholics reiterate their demands; Archbishop of Colombo writes to Prime Minister Rajapakse.

Colombo (AsiaNews) – Sri Lankans went to the polls today to elect their fifth president in atmosphere of calm. Voters in areas under the control Tamil rebels largely boycotted the elections, but the Tamil minority—650,000 voters out of 13.3 million—might play king-maker in the tight race between the two main contenders, current Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe and leader of the opposition United National Party.

S. Pulidevan, head of the Peace Secretariat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), denied his rebel group encouraged voters to go and cast their ballot.

"The issue was discussed at length by the LTTE and the TNA (Tamil National Alliance) last week and the conclusion was the Tamils cannot place our trust on either of the parties or their candidates," he said.

Although separatist rebels also said they would not prevent people from voting, some roadblocks were set up in Tamil Tiger areas to stop people travelling to polling stations. The Tigers did not seem to have overtly organised the road blocks, but election monitors noted that they did not remove the.

Early reports from the north indicate that the turnout in Jaffna town was low; out of 2,083 registered voters, only one cast the ballot after nearly three hours after voting began.

Many analysts believe that a low turnout in Tamil areas might hurt Wickremesinghe's chances. Of the two candidates, he is the one most favourable to resuming peace negotiations with separatist rebels after they stalled in 2003.

In the 30-year conflict (1972-2002) between government and rebel forces, more than 60,000 people have died. A Norwegian-brokered cease-fire has been in place since 2002.

In the current campaign, three issues have dominated the debate. The two main candidates disagree on all three.

Economy: Sri Lanka ix experiencing high inflation and a rising cost of living. Rajapakse opposes privatisations and is in favour of subsidies for farmers. Wickremesinghe pledges foreign investment and market-oriented reforms.

Peace: Rajapakse wants to restart the peace process with the LTTE to reach a deal on new bases. His opponent wants to resume stalled negotiations.

Post-tsunami Reconstruction: The December 24, 2004, tsunami killed 31,000 people. Critics have attacked the way the current administration handled foreign relief assistance. The two candidates come down on opposite sides of the current reconstruction legislation.

In addition to the aforementioned issues, anti-conversion legislation has been a relevant topic, especially for religious minorities, namely the Bill on Prohibition of Forcible Conversion and the Act for the Protection of Religious Freedom, ostensibly directed at alleged Christian proselytising.

A message Mgr Oswald Gomis, Archbishop of Colombo, sent to Catholic voters irked Prime Minister Rajapakse, who read into the prelate's words a personal attack against himself.

Archbishop Gomis replied in a letter, apologising for the misunderstanding, explaining that he was advising the faithful to carefully consider each party's programme and choose what they thought best. He did however insist that Christian concerns are well-founded.

"I saw on TV people campaigning for votes saying that only war can solve the Tamil problem," he said. "I heard speeches that promoted anti-Christian laws" and encouraged hatred, he added.

Today's presidential elections are the fifth since the establishment of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka in 1978.

Final results are not expected until tomorrow.

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