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Sri Lankan Premier Wins Presidency, Partial Results Show


COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Apparently looking for a peaceful way to end a long-running ethnic uprising, Sri Lankans on Wednesday entrusted the country's supreme office to their novice prime minister, who has pledged to abolish the job by the summer, partial returns showed.

In an election that pitted two political widows against one other, the first results showed Prime Minister Chandrika Kumaratunga winning more than 59% of the vote for the executive presidency. Opponent Srima Dissanayake beat her in only one locality, the early results showed.

Kumaratunga would be the first woman to hold the presidential post in Sri Lanka.

Immediately after polls closed, Dissanayake seemed resigned to losing, but claimed that she had been the victim of widespread vote-rigging.

Members of Kumaratunga's People's Alliance, or the PA, forecast a landslide win that they said would be a popular mandate to resume talks with Tamil rebels.

"If she's elected with an overwhelming majority, it endorses her peace policies," Housing Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva said.

Kumaratunga broke off groundbreaking contacts she had initiated with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam after the assassination last month of Dissanayake's husband by a suicide bomber, a terrorist technique associated with the insurgents.

Srima Dissanayake, 51, a lawyer, was then named by the United National Party to replace her murdered spouse as the opposition's top candidate.

For reasons of safety, she campaigned only through the media. She denounced as naive Kumaratunga's willingness to talk unconditionally to the Tigers.

Fearing that a bitter, violence-marred campaign could mean trouble on election day, police put more than 40,000 officers on special duty. But clashes were reported at more than 100 polling stations.

Two of Srima Dissanayake's supporters were reportedly stabbed to death, and a third was knifed but not killed. More than 100 people were arrested.

The government proclaimed an island-wide curfew to prevent more violence or settling of political accounts. But Kumaratunga's supporters defied the curfew, setting off firecrackers in the streets to celebrate her expected victory.

Dissanayake accused her opponent's party of stuffing ballot boxes and intimidating voters.

She blamed the alleged harassment from the PA for an estimated turnout of 60%-65%, low by Sri Lankan standards. Final returns are not expected until today.

For many voters, the election was a plebiscite on the first contacts in four years between the government and the Liberation Tigers, a group that for 11 years has fought to establish a separate Tamil homeland on this Indian Ocean island. More than 30,000 people have been killed in the conflict.

"Everything depends on what the outcome of these peace talks is," Colombo schoolteacher T.M.I. Mutaliph said. "Everyone is looking forward to peace. The prosperity of the country, its stability--all of this depends on ending this ongoing war."

Kumaratunga, 49, whose mother and father both served as prime minister, has repeatedly assured voters that if elected, she will work to abolish the executive presidency, which was created in 1978. That powerful post concentrates too much power in the hands of one person, Kumaratunga has said.

She said by July she will work to amend the constitution to restore the British-style parliamentary system Sri Lanka once had.

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