Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga

Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, who became Sri Lanka's first woman president in 1994, has risen faster in politics than any contemporary.

But her time in office has not been smooth and parliamentary elections on Tuesday pose one of her greatest challenges yet.

It took Kumaratunga, almost a political non-entity in the early-1990s, less than two years to become a provincial chief minister, then prime minister and finally the first citizen.

Now, with her party's popularity waning, Kumaratunga faces the possibility of a hung parliament and an opposition party opposed to her package of constitutional reforms that she has long hoped would bring peace after 17 years of war against Tamil separatists.

The reforms aim to give more powers to regions, including the war-torn north, but she has been unable to muster enough support to get them through parliament despite years of trying.

Kumaratunga does not give up easily. She survived an assassination attempt last year to win presidential elections, and suffered the murder of her father and husband. Yet she has remained unbowed in her attempts to revitalize her country.

Kumaratunga comes from one of the country's most famous families and politics run deep.

Political Dynasty

She studied political science in France and married film star turned politician, Vijay Kumaratunga.

Her father Solomon Bandaranaike was Sri Lanka's prime minister before he was assassinated by a Buddhist monk in 1959.

The political mantle was passed to her mother Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who became the world's first woman prime minister in July, 1960. She served a third term as premier in her daughter's cabinet before retiring in August due to poor health.

Kumaratunga's claim as leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, which was led by her father and mother, resulted in a family break up, with her only brother Anura Bandaranaike joining the opposition United National Party.

Kumaratunga's husband also fell to an assassin's bullet. Vijay Kumaratunga was shot dead in 1988 by an unknown gunman at the couple's home in a Colombo suburb.

She has a daughter Yasodara and son Vimukthi, both of whom she says are against her political role.

Her older sister Sunethra Bandaranaike has chosen to stay out of politics.

Kumaratunga came to power in 1994 with 62 percent of the vote, promising weary Sri Lankans a free-market economy and an end to the war against Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Kumaratunga launched peace talks with the rebels, who are fighting for a Tamil homeland in the north and east, and called for a ceasefire.

But the 14-week-old ceasefire was shattered when LTTE rebels bombed two navy boats in the eastern port city of Trincomalee in early 1995. Eleven sailors were killed and 20 were wounded.

Kumaratunga declared war on the rebels and government troops were sent in to push the guerrillas out of their traditional bastion of northern Jaffna peninsula.

At the same time her government began working on the new constitution to give more powers to regions, including a Tamil-administered area, and partly meet LTTE demands.

"The constitution is not a Bible. It is a people's document and has to be changed when people want it changed," she once told Reuters.

Biggest Victory

Kumaratunga's biggest political victory came when the military captured the Jaffna peninsula in December 1995. A few months later troops pushed the LTTE out of the peninsula, confining them to the jungles of the Wanni just to the south.

In December 1999, while campaigning for presidential polls, she was wounded in an assassination attempt blamed on the LTTE. She won a second six-year term days after that, but with a much smaller margin than in 1994.

Since then she has grown more frustrated as the main opposition United National Party refused to back her political package and the LTTE threatened to retake Jaffna with a series of victories in the north.

Kumaratunga was forced to shelve her new constitution in August 2000 because of mounting opposition, including street protests by hardline Sinhala Buddhist monks. Her ruling People's Alliance did not believe it could win the mandatory two-thirds support in parliament.

Days later she announced parliamentary elections.

Kumaratunga has launched a massive privatization program, selling state-owned plantation firms to private companies and stakes in Sri Lanka Telecom and national carrier Air Lanka to foreign investors.

Her economic vision was simple the government needed to reduce its overall budget deficit and try to bring the defense budget under control. But both these economic targets have overshot with state borrowing mounting to fund the war.