COLOMBO, Jan 3 (Reuters) - Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa seeks re-election in a January poll, with the main challenger former army chief Sarath Fonseka, who led the military to victory in a 25-year war against separatist rebels.
Here are some of the variables in the Jan. 26 election, which increasingly looks like a challenging contest for the incumbent.
STANCE OF ETHNIC MINORITY TAMILS
During the war years Tamils tended to boycott elections, but with the Tigers militarily defeated that is unlikely this time, making them an important voting bloc.
The main Tamil party, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), once backed by the Tamil Tiger rebels, is expected to announce its stance on Monday. Analysts say Tamils in the island's lowlands, concentrated especially in the north and accounting for almost 12 percent of the population, will probably lean towards Fonseka, already backed by the minority-friendly main opposition United National Party (UNP).
Fonseka said on Saturday that he would relax tight security measures and create a conducive environment for business. He has also said high security zones will be removed in the north and war displaced people, mostly Tamils, will be resettled swiftly while ensuring ethnic harmony politically.
Tamils in Sri Lanka's highlands -- their ancestors brought in from India by the British before independence to work on tea plantations and with concerns not always meshing with their ethnic brethren -- are about 5 percent of the population and divided relatively evenly between Fonseka and Rajapaksa. MANIFESTOES BY BOTH CANDIDATES
Rajapaksa and Fonseka, the top candidates in a field of more than 20, are due to release their manifestoes within the next week. Rajapaksa is expected to announce an updated version of the same manifesto he presented in the 2005 election, with special emphasis on post-war infrastructure development, high growth, and eliminating poverty.
Fonseka, backed by a coalition of opposition groups with markedly different ideological outlooks, is expected to come up with a common minimum programme agreed by all his partners. It is expected to strongly emphasise eliminating corruption and wastage in the $40 billion economy and slashing executive powers vested in the presidency.
On a post-war political solution for a sustainable peace -- important if the country is to attract long-term significant investment and aid -- Rajapaksa is likely to be vague, as he has to satisfy some extremists in his own coalition parties. Fonseka is expected to be clearer as his coalition partners have agreed on a solution involving significant conciliatory gestures toward the Tamils.
Politicians switching camps during elections is a common practice in Sri Lankan politics. Analysts say more legislators probably will defect from Rajapaksa than from Fonseka, as the ex-army chief has been able to shift voters towards him despite strong state media backing for Rajapaksa. This could in turn spark even more of the electorate to shift and increase Fonseka's chances significantly.
ALLEGATIONS OF WAR CRIMES
Human rights groups say war crimes such as extra-judicial killings, deliberate targeting of civilians, and abductions were frequent on both sides during the civil war. With the Tigers defeated and the Tamils an important element in the election, charges about government and army responsibility for such incidents are seen intensifying as the campaign wears on. The Rajapaksa administration and Fonseka have already traded accusations over alleged killings of surrendering Tamil fighters and the murder of a pro-opposition editor.
PRICE CUTS AND PROMISES
The government, which did not reduce prices of essential goods and petrol in the past, slashed their prices last month. Some say these pre-poll cuts could backfire if the public sees them as transparent election gimmicks. However, Fonseka has now promised financial benefits worth around 300 billion rupees ($2.62 billion) for salary hikes and transfer payments if he is elected. Rajapaksa meanwhile pledges massive infrastructure projects. Whoever wins may find it difficult to deliver, given Sri Lanka's commitment, linked to an International Monetary Fund loan, to reduce expenditures to achieve a challenging budget deficit target of 6 percent of the GDP this year.
DOWN TO THE WIRE
Before Fonseka entered the fray, political analysts saw Rajapaksa winning a landslide victory due to post-war popularity. Fonseka's candidacy has altered the political equation. Most analysts now see the election as a conflict between two strong personalities rather than two sets of policies, with the outcome easily influenced by events of the next three weeks.
(Writing by Shihar Aneez; Additional reporting by N. Parameshwaran in Jaffna; Editing by Jerry Norton)
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