Sri Lanka's Commissioner of Elections, Dayananda Dissanakaye, on Friday set the date for the Presidential election. The contest is expected to be mainly between President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the former Commander of the Sri Lanka Army, Sarath Fonseka.

Sri Lankan Commissioner of Elections, Dayananda Dissanayake, on Friday evening set January 26 as the date of polling for the Presidential election. Presidential hopefuls could submit their nominations on December 17 between 9 a.m.and 11 a.m. The counting of votes would be taken up immediately after the last ballot is cast.

The Election Commissioner’s announcement came five days after President Mahinda Rajapaksa signed a proclamation advancing the Presidential poll by two years.

All signs are that the poll, billed as the mother of all elections by observers, would mainly be a contest between the President, who is also the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, and the Commander of the Sri Lanka Army during the Eelam War IV (July 2006 to May 2009), General (retd.) Sarath Fonseka.

Some political parties are exploring the possibility of fielding a common Tamil candidate to provide an opportunity to voters who do not want to vote to either Mr. Rajapaksa or military commander turned politician.

The dilemma before some of the parties representing minorities was evident from the comments made by the Democratic Peoples Front (DPF) leader, Mano Ganeshan, when approached by The Hindu after a meeting of his party late on Thursday.

He said: “Our decision is to work for the defeat of Mr. Rajapaksa. We would choose from one of the two options of either backing General (retd.) Fonseka, or fielding a common Tamil candidate by next Thursday.”

Gen. Fonseka, who is scheduled to hold a press conference at 11 a.m. on Sunday, has delayed a formal announcement of his foray into the Presidential race due to the to the ongoing consultations among the leaders of Tamil and Muslim parties since the mainstream opposition parties including the ultra-nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Perumana have already thrown their weight behind the man projected as `war hero’.

On Thursday the working Committee of the United National Party (UNP), the leading opposition party agreed to back the candidature of General (retd.) Sarath Fonseka. Within hours, the splinter group of the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by Mangala Samaraweera joined the bandwagon. The UNP is the main constituent of the newly formed 18-party United National Front (UNF).

The last Presidential election, November 2005, was a close contest between Mr. Rajapaksa and the former Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe. Thanks to a call by the LTTE leader Velupillai Prabakaran for boycott of the election, Mr. Wickremesinghe lost the race by a margin of two per cent or 1.8 lakh votes.

Under the Constitution, the President can call for a presidential election once the incumbent completes four years of the six-year term. Mr. Rajapaksa earlier in the week had said that the decision to hold the presidential election two years ahead of his first term was prompted by the desire to restore the right to vote for the people of the war torn Northern Province.

Majority of the Northern Province was under the control of the LTTE and the Sri Lanka security forces militarily defeated the Tigers in the fourth week of May and enabled the Government regain it. The Rajapaksa Government is committed to re-settlement of the 1.4 lakh remaining of the nearly 3 lakh displaced due to the war between the LTTE and the military.

Unlike the 2005 election in which voters from eight provinces took part in the Presidential poll, voters from nine provinces would be part of the exercise. In October 2006 the temporarily merged North-Eastern Province was nullified by the Supreme Court paving way for re-emergence of Northern and Eastern Provinces.

As of now Mr. Rajapaksa has taken a clear lead in the campaign. It was evident over 24 hours ago when he hit out at the opposition in his inimitable style saying that he saw no challenge in the so-called common candidate, be it the retired military man or the former UNP Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe.

There is little doubt that the need to switch over to an Indian style democracy from the current system, under which the President is all-powerful, and a serious endeavour towards a permanent solution to the ethnic strife would be main agenda of the Presidential hopefuls. With the man who was instrumental in the military defeat of the LTTE in the fray as a possible opposition candidate, the rhetoric would be on who deserves the laurels for the demise of the Tiger supremo, Velupillai Prabakaran and the appeal for the majority community Sinhala vote. The irony is Prabakaran would have turned 55 on Thursday.

The irony does not begin or end there. The UNP is propping an officer in uniform till the November 16 noon, crying hoarse on the growing dictatorial tendencies of the Rajapaksa regime, in the name of the dire need for constitutional reforms and an honest endeavour towards a permanent solution to the three decade old ethnic strife.

As leader of the newly-floated 18-party United National Front (UNF), Mr. Wickremesinghe has been advocating a shift from the Presidential to Parliamentary form of democracy with an Executive Prime Minister and President as head of the Constitution. His main ally in the campaign for ouster of Mr. Rajapaksa, system change and Gen. (retd.) Fonseka the war hero as the best bet for the task is none other than the factional ruling party leader and former Foreign Minister, Mr. Samaraweera.

Exactly a year ago Mr. Samaraweera had accused Gen. (retd.) Fonseka of being a racist and manipulating statistics on the causalities of the rank and file of the Tigers in a bid to bolster the sagging morale of the military and leading the people of the island nation up the garden path. “Although the army commander (Gen. Fonseka) has claimed "12,000 Tigers have been killed and 8,000 made disabled. We cannot be happy with increasing statistics. We are not fighting another country.” Mr. Samaraweera had said.

The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (Mangala) had also accused the army commander of insulting officers who have sacrificed their lives for the country. "President Chandrika Kumaratunga chased Velupillai Prabakaran from Jaffna in 1995. In 1996 we captured Kilinochchi. Great generals such as Kobbekaduwa and Janaka Perera have sacrificed their lives to fight the LTTE."

"But the Rajapaksas gave up their citizenship of Sri Lanka and went to live in the USA. Now those who came from the USA want to set up a police state in Mugabe style. The army commander went to the USA to get his Green Card renewed," Mr. Samaraweera charged, alleging also that "he needs to do this so he can run there when something goes wrong here."

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