Former general provides tough election challenge to Sri Lankan president


COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Two months ago, when Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa called Tuesday’s early election, the contest looked like a pushover. A
few jabs for the camera at 90-pound weakling opponents, a ceremonial
dance around the ring. Then the hugely popular leader would declare

Instead, this has turned into a slugfest royale.

The difference has been the emergence of an unexpected challenger, fellow national hero and former army commander Sarath Fonseka, 59, who has managed to largely neutralize Rajapaksa’s trump card: credit for winning Sri Lanka’s three-decade civil war last May.

In an even more unexpected development, the
battlefield commander with limited political experience has done far
better than expected. Tapping into a desire for change in the
Sinhalese-majority nation, he has turned the spotlight on the economy,
corruption and good governance, areas where the president is more

“That’s what’s made it a real race,” said Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, a civic group.

And in the tradition of a good street brawl, marquess of Queensberry rules quickly fell by the wayside.

Behind the slogan “A brighter future,” Rajapaksa has
hammered away at Fonseka’s lack of political experience, claimed the
retired general’s supporters are stockpiling weapons and warned that
his opponent will bring about a military dictatorship. Former army
subordinates have come out saying he had affairs and that he owes $17,400 in overdue satellite phone bills.

Fonseka has slugged back at Rajapaksa, 64, on
corruption, vote-rigging, nepotism — several family members, including
three brothers, are in the government — and the economy, promising if
elected to reduce the president’s power.

There are a score of other candidates, but none is viewed as a serious contender.

This has been Sri Lanka’s
most violent election in a decade, analysts said, replete with two
bombings, four murders, 12 shootings and 137 injured, included among
594 complaints received by the People’s Action for Free and Fair
Elections, an independent monitoring group.

“The unfortunate choice before many voters is
whether to close their nose and vote for the government or shut their
eyes and vote for the opposition,” said an editorial in this week’s Sunday Times, which slammed both camps for degrading the democratic process.

For voters who don’t respond to name-calling, the
candidates offer visions of wealth and glory. Fonseka, under the slogan
“Believable Change,” promised every civil servant a $100 monthly salary hike in a country with per-capita income of about $2,000.

Rajapaksa has promised to build roads, schools and other infrastructure toward elevating Sri Lanka “from third world to the first world.”

Critics charge the president with taking advantage of government machinery. His image is on a new 1,000-rupee note, while the airwaves have been blanketed with his accomplishments, his patriotic appeal, how he’s a “son of the soil.”

Sri Lanka’s two
main state-owned television channels devoted 98.5 percent of their news
coverage to Rajapaksa, according to Reporters Without Borders, a Brussels-based advocacy group.

But Fonseka has also relied heavily on media
imagery, including an advertisement showing him shirtless, revealing
the wounds he suffered in a 2006 Tamil Tiger assassination attempt.

Amid all the mud-slinging, some fear that the important issues facing Sri Lanka
after decades of violence — including corruption, bad governance, human
rights, internally displaced people and reconciliation between
Sinhalese and minority Tamils — will be ignored.

“The people of the north have faced many hardships,” said Lilly Manoharan,
54, a Tamil working in a children’s home in the city of Jaffna. “We
want peace. There is the fear that our next president won’t fulfill
their promises.”

Both candidates have taken credit for the army’s
victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a militant group
that pioneered the suicide vest in its brutal campaign for a homeland
for marginalized Tamils, who are concentrated in the island’s north and

In an ironic twist, Tamils, who account for about 18
percent of the island’s 21 million people, including an estimated
100,000 civilians still reportedly in internment camps, may have an
inordinate role in deciding the outcome. With the Sinhalese support
split, Tamils could provide the swing votes.

Rajapaksa has banked on the appeal of his patriotism
message, especially among rural voters who account for 70 percent of
the population, in a nation where no incumbent has ever lost. “People
support Mahinda Rajapaksa because the war is over,” said V. Dharmadasa, a lab attendant at a university in Colombo. “Now we can at least walk in the streets.”

Fonseka has earned support from divergent opposition groups, some with bad blood going back decades.

“Their argument is, they came together for regime change,” said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director with Colombo’s Center for Policy Alternatives. “But there is no guarantee that the coalition would last.”

The in-your-face nature of the race was seen at a
Rajapaksa rally Saturday in the town of Piliyandala. As his supporters
entered the public grounds where the gathering was held, they were
greeted by a large billboard showing Fonseka’s image and, countering
Rajapaksa’s claim that he was the patriot, the general’s slogan: “True

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