Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe

Former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, a veteran of Sri Lankan politics, believes Tuesday's general election is his best chance in years to return to power and bring peace to the war weary nation.

The long-serving leader of the main opposition United National Party lost to Chandrika Kumaratunga during last year's presidential polls but is determined to be the victor this time.

"This is the last waltz by the PA ... Chandrika Kumaratunga wants your vote to destroy your rights, destroy democracy," Wickremesinghe said, referring to Kumaratunga's People's Alliance party.

The 51-year-old looks more like a film star than a hard-boiled politician but is every bit an astute politician. The electorate generally considers him a good and experienced economic manager but lacking charisma.

Sri Lanka's voters are tired of the war, the slowing economy, a growing defense budget and Kumaratunga's failed and devisive attempts to push through radical reforms to the constitution.

Wickremesinghe has said if he wins he will clip Kumaratunga of her executive-presidential powers and pass a new constitution by seeking a two-thirds majority in parliament and approval in a national referendum.

He wants to build a national consensus to help end the crippling 17-year war with Tamil separatists in the north.

But he knows achieving this will be hard.

Test of Will, Test of Skill

He plans to create an atmosphere conducive to talks by sending food and medicine to regions held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam rebels, lifting military restrictions on fishing and farming and stopping harassment of Tamil civilians.

"I have no illusions that this is a very, very difficult path to follow. There certainly are going to be obstacles, but I want to go down this road, I am determined to go down this road and I am determined to succeed," he said.

Over 61,000 people have died since fighting began in 1983. The war has cost the country billions of dollars, hurt tourism and deterred many investors, people he wants to lure back.

The rebels are determined to win a homeland in the north and east. Getting them to the table will require all the skills Wickremesinghe has learned in more than 20 years in politics.

He was first elected to parliament in 1977 and moved fast up the party hierarchy after party stalwart Ranasinghe Premadasa was elected president in 1989.

Premadasa appointed him minister of industries and leader of the house in parliament, making Wickremesinghe responsible for steering the party through a hostile chamber. He worked on an industrialization program and on attracting foreign investors.

In May 1993, Wickremesinghe became prime minister but held the post for just 16 months. He was relegated to the opposition when the UNP was ousted in elections by the People's Alliance.

He took over the reins of the pro-reform UNP in 1994 at the tail of the party's 17 turbulent years in power, which saw Sri Lanka go through impressive economic transformation, bloody ethnic violence and a brutal leftist youth uprising.

He succeeded Premadasa, Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake, all of whom were assassinated by suspected rebels.

Wickremesinghe narrowly escaped a bomb attack last December.

He had just left a rally when a suspected Tamil Tiger suicide bomber blew themselves up. Eight people died and 70 were wounded.

No Consensus

Wickremesinghe was credited with the smooth transition of power to the People's Alliance government, insisting the new government be given a chance to carry out its agenda.

Later he hardened, accusing the government of going on political "witch hunts" against opposition politicians, including himself, and of using violence against opponents.

The opposition leader, who first refused to back the government in its quest to push the new constitution through parliament, launched talks with Kumaratunga this year to reach a consensus but denied her support at the last minute.

The People's Alliance government was forced last month to shelve the new constitution that aimed to devolve more power to minorities, such as Tamils in the war-torn north.

The package, which sparked street protests, was put to one side after it was clear it would fail to muster the necessary two-thirds majority to be approved by parliament.