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New hard-line president may jeopardize Sri Lankan peace process

Mahinda Rajapakse won 50.29 percent of the vote to the 48.4 percent of his dovish rival, Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Sri Lanka's deadlocked peace process has been thrown into uncertainty following Mahinda Rajapakse's inauguration as the country's fifth president on Saturday. Mr. Rajapakse's hard-line stance against the island's separatist Tamil Tiger rebels could drive the new government and the insurgents farther apart, experts say.

Mr. Rajapakse says his goal is an "honorable peace" based on a national consensus. He has offered to talk directly with the Tigers, who control an extended area in Sri Lanka's north and east. But he rejects the rebels' key demand for an autonomous Tamil homeland and wants to review a fragile three-year-old cease-fire and peace framework brokered by Norway.

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The cease-fire was signed in 2002 by the Tigers' leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, and Ranil Wickremesinghe, then the prime minister. He is Rajapakse's dovish rival, who lost last week's presidential poll by less than 2 percent. But the agreement has since been undermined by a spate of political killings. Oslo-brokered peace talks, which sought a federal solution to the Tigers' demand for an autonomous homeland, foundered in 2003.

Even so, the peace process established by Mr. Wickremesinghe and the rebels with Norway's help halted the worst of the fighting in a bloody ethnic civil war that has claimed more than 64,000 lives since the war began in 1983. The conflict flows from the claim that Sri Lanka's majority Sinhalese community discriminates against the minority Tamils.

Wickremesinghe's plans to rejuvenate the peace process were ended by his slender defeat, in which he received 48.4 percent of the vote to Rajapakse's 50.29 percent. Tamils, many of whom were expected to support Wickremesinghe, largely stayed home in areas controlled by the Tigers for fear of retribution if they voted. Analysts say this may have cost Wickremesinghe the race.

Rajapakse's stated opposition to the current negotiating framework has many worried about the future of Sri Lanka's peace process, though most analysts think Sri Lanka, weary of violence, will avoid a return to full-scale conflict. The international community has applied pressure for a peace settlement, including the promise of billions of dollars in aid. The economic cost of a return to war would also weigh heavily on the island's $20 billion economy, which has grown steadily since the 2002 cease-fire.

"The risk of a return to war is minimal now," says Alan Bullion, a Sri Lanka specialist at the Ferguson Centre for African and Asian Studies, in Milton Keynes, England. "I think the Tigers want to see the peace process through. Some of their leaders have indicated that, although I wouldn't want to rule out a return to war."

Norway has also said it is willing to continue its role as long as required. "Elements of [Mr. Rajapakse's] political support view Norway as meddling in Sri Lankan politics," says Mr. Bullion. "They have been vehemently against Norway's involvement. They want a domestic, homegrown solution."

However, the absence of another viable mediator to take Norway's place counts in Norway's favor, says Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Colombo-based Centre For Policy Alternatives. "I don't think the Nordic mediation is going to come to an end simply because there are no other takers," he says.

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But most experts agree that much is riding on Rajapakse's next steps.

"If Mr. Rajapakse continues to take a hard-line approach, he may bust up what is left of the peace process," adds Robert Rotberg, the director of the Belfer Center's Program on Intrastate Conflict and Conflict Resolution at Harvard University, in an e-mail. But he also points out that much depends on the stance the Tigers now adopt, too.

Jehan Perera, a director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, worries that if Rajapakse's new approach is "inadequate to the task [of moving the peace process forward], I'm very fearful of a deterioration in the situation."

Still, Rajapakse's challenge to the stalled peace process could galvanize change, some observers say. "If Rajapakse can present a truly united negotiating front, and if he approaches the Tigers with imagination and strength, major shifts in the parameters of the negotiations can occur," says Mr. Rotberg.

Analysts say that the peace process needs fresh impetus and adjustments to reflect developments since 2002, such as the birth in eastern Sri Lanka of a breakaway rebel force that split from the main Tamil Tiger group last year. The faction could threaten the cease-fire agreement unless it is brought into the fold, they point out.

The high-stakes political machinations dominating Colombo since the presidential election have done little to assuage ordinary Sri Lankans' concern for their safety and security.

"Right now, we don't feel secure at all," says Shantha Amarasinghe, a research engineer who lives in the outskirts of Colombo and is skeptical about whether any Sri Lankan politician can achieve peace. "There is still violence going on. It's a really worrying situation, and it's certainly not the peace that we wanted."