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Violence shadows Sri Lanka vote. Will today's presidential election help turn tide of extremism?

J.D.W. Jayawardana uneasily watched the political rally from the sidelines. The movie theater owner had come to central Colombo for the final campaign appearance of Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa, who is running for president.

Only a few thousand people showed up. As Mr. Premadasa, candidate for the ruling United National Party, smiled and waved from the platform, commandos watched from nearby rooftops and circulated through the crowd.

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Organizers stirred a few chants from the crowd. But most people kept a safe distance from the stage, edgy about the violence that has haunted Sri Lanka's presidential campaign.

``Many people may stay away out of fear,'' Mr. Jayawardana said. ``But I am going to vote because it will be close, a 50-50 fight. We have to do something to stop this terrorism.''

Today, Sri Lankans vote in the most crucial and tortured election in the country's 41-year history. The poll pits Premdasa, against Sirimavo Bandaranaike, a two-time former prime minister. (A third candidate is expected to be of litle competition.)

The vote is also a face-off with the Janata Vimukti Peramuna (JVP), a left-wing Sinhalese group that has unleashed a campaign of terror in a bid to derail the election and come to power. At press time Sunday, at least 23 people had died in election-related violence over the weekend.

Analysts say the election outcome will determine if Sri Lankans can stem the extremist violence that has overshadowed them for more than five years.

``There is an increasing militarization in our society,'' says Neelan Tiruchelvam, a prominent human rights activist. ``Twenty to 25 people are dying every day, and some [say] the toll is even higher.''

In recent months, the JVP, which was brutally suppressed by the government after a 1971 insurrection, has been in a violent standoff with security forces. The JVP is said to be responsible for the killings of more than 700 government officials and security forces since the July 1987 signing of a peace accord with India.

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The accord was an attempt to defuse the civil war that broke out in 1983 when militants of Sri Lanka's ethnic Tamil minority began a violent campaign for their own homeland in the north and east. Tens of thousands of Tamils had since fled to southern India. The 1987 accord allowed the entry of more than 50,000 Indian soldiers to police a Tamil surrender of arms and local elections.

The Indian Army, however, has been bogged down in a struggle with hard-line Tamil ``Tiger'' guerrillas. And the Indian presence has fueled bitterness toward the accord among the majority Sinhalese (80 percent of the country's 16 million people), who see it as granting too many concessions to the Tamils.

Riding that momentum, the JVP has surged into prominence, calling for the end of the peace accord and an Indian pullout. It has tried twice to assassinate third presidential candidate Ossie Abeygoonesekera, who endorsed the accord with India. The economy has been crippled by JVP-inspired strikes and blockades.

In mid-November, the government, which had been trying to lure the JVP into the political mainstream, cracked down. By official estimates, almost 500 JVP members and sympathizers have been killed. Human-rights advocates claim the government has killed scores of innocent victims and the death toll is higher.

``There are no rules in war ... '' said President Jayewardene, who, in a weekend-published interview did not deny the presence of government-supported death squads. ``Well, this is a war.''

Against this backdrop of violence and uncertainty the government has decided to press ahead with the election. On the eve of the poll the opposition party complained of violence by government supporters. Opposition officials also said they feared the government would use its extensive organization to rig the election.

``The big question is whether they can get enough people to run this election,'' says a Western diplomat in Colombo. ``The government is so thinly stretched, and the military is wearing too many hats.''

Political observers agree that providing the manpower and security to run the polls and bring out voters is key. The task could be difficult in southern Sri Lanka, where the JVP campaign has knocked out roads, bridges, and power lines. Security officials say 80,000 Army security forces will patrol voting areas.

Voter turnout will determine the credibility of the new government, analysts say. In past elections, more than 80 percent of eligible Sri Lankans have voted. A showing of less than 50 percent could make the new regime shaky, government officials admit.

Mrs. Bandaranaike, who joined politics after the 1959 assassination of her husband, Prime Minister Soloman Bandaranaike, is banking on the mass appeal of her name. Discontent with the ruling party will also help her bid.

Premadasa, although a member of the ruling party, has tried to distance himself from President Junius Jayewardene's policies. He has criticized the peace accord with India and, like Bandaranaike, has called for sending India troops home. During the campaign, he shunned Mr. Jayewardene's free-market policies in favor of a mass subsidy for the poor.

Whatever the election outcome, the schisms in society will remain, analysts say. ``The violence will not end overnight,'' says a senior diplomat in Colombo. ``Whoever becomes president will be faced with the task of national reconciliation and bringing the economy back on track.''

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