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Sri Lankan Economy Primary Concern in Upcoming Elections

By Amy Waldman

The New York Times -- THALANGMUA, Sri Lanka

The cease-fire between the government and Tamil rebels in 2002 was welcomed in this village, where many families sent sons to the army, and sometimes to their deaths, during the two-decade civil war.

But the peace seems to be earning Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe of the United National Party little credit here as he faces voters on Friday in the third parliamentary election in four years.

The lack of economic opportunity, on the other hand, in a place where the best income possibility is to send a sister or daughter to clean house in the Middle East, has evoked considerable ill will.

“We were expecting more from this government - especially electricity,” said Gamini Vijesekara, a farmer and carpenter.

The early elections President Chandrika Kumaratunga called for after dissolving parliament in February were expected to be a referendum on the handling of the peace effort with the Tamil Tiger rebels by her archrival, Wickremesinghe, whom she accused of threatening the country’s security.

Surveys show that many voters say the peace effort is the most important issue. But the economy, specifically the cost of living, is a close second.

This election is also shaping up as a referendum on globalization and capitalism in formerly socialist Sri Lanka. The prime minister’s supporters point to a negative growth rate of 1.5 percent the year he took office -- and the estimated 5.75 percent positive growth expected this year.

“I work at a private company, and we can feel the difference,” said Sanjoewa Weerakoon, in Colombo, the capital. “Frankly I can feel it in my pocket.”

But many others do not. They point to drought in parts of the country, the shrinkage of government jobs, the way even once-benevolent factories, facing global competition, are hiring people on a temporary basis to avoid giving them benefits.

The villagers interviewed here all said they would vote for Kumaratunga’s Freedom Alliance party.