Sri Lanka's Supreme Court on Friday said the nation's presidential election must be held this year effectively ending President Chandrika Kumaratunga's final term a year earlier than she had hoped, and possibly moving the peace process with Tamil rebels to the back-burner.
"The negative side of this (election) is that nothing is going to happen until the elections are over," said Jehan Perera of the National Peace Council, an independent think tank focusing on the stalled peace talks.
"In the forthcoming talks to strengthen the cease-fire you can't expect any breakthrough. You can't expect any political give and take," he was quoted as saying by the AP.
A Norway-brokered cease-fire ended nearly two-decades of fighting in 2002, but it has been under severe strain in recent months. The truce suffered a serious blow after the assassination of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar by suspected rebels on Aug. 12. The Tigers denied any involvement. Both sides agreed to hold talks, but they differ on the venue.
Reading out the unanimous judgment of the five-judge panel, Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva told a packed courthouse that the date on which Kumaratunga's second term commenced was Dec. 22, 1999, indicating her six-year term ends this year.
The decision is a win for the opposition, which disputed a claim by the president's ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party that Kumaratunga was entitled to remain in office until Dec. 2006 because she called a snap election a year before her first six-year term ended.
"There was a big political instability in the country, but now we have a chance to get some stability and fight against the murderous terrorists," Buddhist monk and opposition lawmaker Athuraliye Rathna said, referring to the Tamil Tiger rebels.
After the judgment, jubilant supporters of Rathna's National Heritage Party, which has seven monk lawmakers in the 225-member Parliament, lit firecrackers outside the court complex in celebration.
The date for the polls will be decided by the election commissioner. No announcement has been made, but the probable date is likely to be before Nov. 22.
Kumaratunga's party downplayed the impact of the ruling.
Friday's court order coincided with a statement from the president's office that said she was making plans for retirement, not now but in 2006.
The Cabinet has approved "to allocate a block of land ... to President Kumaratunga to construct her private residence after retirement from the presidency in 2006," a statement from her press office said.
On photo: Sri Lanka president