Political circles in Colombo couldn't resist the joke. "This time she's early," they chuckled when Sri Lanka's notoriously unpunctual president, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, proclaimed that she was calling snap presidential elections almost a year ahead of schedule. As is customary in the island in the sun, the date, 21 December, was picked in consultation with astrologers. The star-gazers deemed the day auspicious for Kumaratunga, 52, who is standing for re-election to a post she solemnly pledged to abolish five years ago.

Although her opponents are rubbing that in her face, and have been doing so for some time now, the main opposition United National Party (UNP) is not likely to abolish the allpowerful executive presidency if they can grab the plum they created in 1978. Given that Kumaratunga has only a single-vote majority in Parliament — although she is comfortable in the legislature with the backing of the minority Tamil parties in the opposition —the executive presidency provides the stability that would otherwise have been impossible.

In fact, Kumaratunga called for the early presidential election fearing a parliamentary coup. An acute consciousness of the Bandaranaike dynasty's experience with such "conspiracies", makes her sensitive to the dangers. Announcing the snap election to her ministers a few days before the scheduled 1 November budget presentation, she spoke darkly of the lurking risks. "There are Buddharakkhitas, Somaramas and C.P. de Silvas in our midst," she said.

The president was alluding to the Buddhist monks who conspired and killed her father, prime minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in 1959, and to the senior leader who defected from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and toppled the government of her mother, Sirima Bandaranaike. De Silva had declared he wanted to "live a free man in a free society", but prime minister Bandaranaike, whose alignment with the Marxists led to his defection, wailed, "I've been stabbed in the back."

The daughter, of course, chooses to forget that she herself, with her filmstar husband (later assassinated) Vijaya Kumaratunga, defected from the SLFP and formed their own party. So did her brother Anura. The Kumaratungas did return to the SLFP fold, though Anura (now with the UNP), who had regarded himself as the logical dynastic successor to the SLFP leadership, is quite free with the assertion that his sister had done to him what C.P. de Silva had done to their mother.

All this obviously suggests that Sri Lanka's politics is all too familial. We've had the Senanayake dynasties with the first two prime ministers of Independent Ceylon being father and son, Don Stephen and Dudley Shelton. In fact, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike quit the UNP and founded the SLFP in the early post-Independence period, fearing that the "Old Man", as D.S. Senanayake was popularly known, was going to cheat him of the prime ministership. Although he wasn't in the GOP —as the UNP is also known in the tradition of the Republican Party of the United States — to see it happen, history did prove that D.S. had struck a deal with Lord Soulbury, the then British governor-general, to hand over the mantle to his son, Dudley.

Getting back to the present, Kumaratunga feared that there were moves afoot to defeat the budget for the year 2000, and force the dissolution of Parliament. Ranil Wickremesinghe of the .UNP, a nephew of J.R. Jayewardene (JRJ) who founded the executive presidency (to continue the familial story), had in a fashion confirmed that there was something cooking with the cryptic remark, "We were waiting for the budget to appear so that the government would disappear". So the president did what surely would have earned her the plaudits of the "old fox" JRJ, and abolished the budget!

Announcing the early presidential poll, Kumaratunga said that the scheduled budget presentation and debate would therefore not be possible, and a vote on account would be presented to Parliament to take care of recurrent expenditure early next year. That was as shrewd a tactic as JRJ's elimination of her mother from the political scene soon after his ascension to power in 1977. He had taken away her civic rights for "abuse of power" and ensured that she couldn't run against him when he stood for re-election in 1982.

Kumaratunga has been known to hate JRJ, but it was his third amendment to the 1978 constitution that enabled her to call the election before her term ended. The strategy was to not only pre-empt a possible budget defeat, but also to cash in on her perception, shared within the ruling People's Alliance (PA), that she is stronger than her party. If she wins, it would make the parliamentary election that must follow in next year, that much easier for the PA. The last time around, Kumaratunga had scraped home at the parliamentary poll, and then followed it with a comfortable 62 percent majority in the presidential election, the biggest victory in the history of Sri Lanka's executive presidency.

But it's not going to be that easy this time round, what with a string of broken promises nagging the government, including that of ending the war in the North and abolishing the office to which she now aspires for a second time. The serious reversals suffered by the Sri Lankan army in the North in November could make it even tougher. Many analysts speculate that no candidate will get over 50 percent of the vote in the December election. That will force the counting of second preferences. But not many voters are likely to exercise this right in a ballot that provides for three preferences. Quite apart from expressing preferences, a large number of voters, disgusted with both the PA and the UNP, are likely to spoil their votes.

With half a dozen candidates likely to run, though only two will really matter, the going will be exciting. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP —People's Liberation Front), responsible for two armed insurrections in 1971 and 1988/89, and now in the mainstream, will be the third force. They are sure to show some muscle that will stand them in good stead in next year's parliamentary elections, which will be worked according to what Kumaratunga calls the "bizarre" proportional representation (PR) system. Despite her condemnation of PR, she included it in the draft new constitution that she presented to Parliament.

The big imponderable is what the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) will be up to. In 1994, they killed Gamini Dissanayake, the UNP's candidate for president, and 52 others at an election meeting in Colombo. That helped Chandrika coast to victory by a large margin. The Tigers are expected to show their hand when their leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, makes his customary speech at the end of "Martyr's Week" in end November. The chances are that he will say that the result of the election, where both major contenders oppose his demand for a separate Tamil State, is irrelevant. But if a non-LTTE Tamil candidate does run (this will be known after nominations close on 16 November), it will surely be with a nod from the Tigers. Otherwise such a runner risks assassination in the dangerous world of Sri Lankan politics.

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Himal Southasian