Sri Lanka ruling party claims election victory

Sri Lanka's ruling party claimed victory Friday in parliamentary polls, as counting showed it far ahead of the divided opposition but short of a two-thirds majority needed to amend the constitution.

Thursday's vote was marked by record low turnout and reports of voter intimidation that resulted in fresh voting being ordered in two of the island's 22 electoral districts.

With nearly half the ballots counted, President Mahinda Rajapakse's United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) had secured 63.27 percent of the vote, with the main opposition United National Party a distant second with 27.64 percent.

"We have won the election," said Transport Minister and UPFA spokesman Dullas Alahaperuma, who predicted the collated results would give his party 138 to 142 seats in the 225-member parliament.

The widely expected victory for the ruling party will further strengthen Rajapakse's grip on power just three months after he won a second term as president by an emphatic margin of 1.8 million votes.

Rajapakse had been hoping for a two thirds majority that would allow him to amend the constitution, which currently limits presidents to two successive terms.

"I want a very strong parliament to develop the country," he told reporters as he cast his ballot Thursday in a southern constituency where his son Namal was the ruling party candidate.

For many Sri Lankans, it was the first legislative election in which they could vote without fear of Tamil Tiger violence and suicide attacks following the defeat of the rebels by government forces last year.

But turnout was at a record low of less than 55 percent -- a figure that analysts said would take the glow off the ruling party's victory.

"People have sent a message," said political analyst Victor Ivan. "They are fed up with politicians and their deception. That is why nearly half of the electorate did not bother to vote."

Human rights campaigner and political analyst Nimalka Fernando said the low turnout undermined the legitimacy of the government's victory.

"The result does not give moral authority to the government because half of the electorate did not vote," Fernando said. "With the legitimacy undermined, the government will not be able to go for any sweeping reforms."

Alahaperuma blamed opposition parties, saying they had failed to encourage their supporters to vote after a string of defeats, including the drubbing at the January presidential polls.

Thursday's vote was largely peaceful, except in two districts where Elections Commissioner Dayananda Dissanayake ordered fresh polls after reports of voter intimidation.

"I hope the government uses the mandate of a stronger parliament to push investment friendly reforms,' said Srimal Abeyratne, the head of the economics department at the University of Colombo.

Sethmini Chathurika, 28, said she had voted for Rajapakse's party because it had succeeded in ending the conflict with the Tamil Tigers.

"The president has plans to build the country. I think he deserves a parliament to implement those plans," Chathurika said.

Rajapakse's nationalistic rhetoric appeals to his majority Sinhalese community, but has been criticised by rights groups who accuse him of cronyism and suppressing dissent.

His main election rival, former army chief Sarath Fonseka who led the military campaign that defeated the Tigers, is now in custody and facing court martial.

His party had secured just 5.8 percent of the vote at the halfway point in Friday's count.

Opposition parties were largely united behind Fonseka in his campaign for the presidency in January, but they lost cohesion after his arrest and went into the parliamentary election with little hope of victory.

Source: AFP

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