Sri Lanka: Polarized Mandate
On September 21, 2013, amid heavy security voting was conducted in the Tamil dominated Northern Province of Sri Lanka - the former stronghold of the separatist-terrorist formation, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the largest Tamil party in the country, which is considered the political inheritor of the now defeated LTTE, secured a landslide victory, winning in all five Districts in the Province, with a clear majority in 28 of 36 seats. These included 14 seats in Jaffna District; four seats each in Mullaitivu and Vavuniya; and three each in Mannar and Kilinochchi. The TNA also secured two bonus seats on the basis of its percentage of votes in each District.
The President Mahinda Rajapaksa-led United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) secured seven seats and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) won one seat out of the total of 38 seats in the Northern Provincial Council (NPC).
A total of 68 per cent of the 719,477 registered voters in the five Districts - Jaffna, Vavuniya, Mullaitivu, Kilinochchi and Mannar - of the Province voted for 906 candidates from 57 political parties and 28 independent groups at 850 polling stations. The main contest was between the TNA which had fielded retired Supreme Court Judge C.V. Wigneswaran as its Chief Ministerial candidate; and the UPFA, represented by its two key candidates - S. Thavarajah of the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP) and Angajan Ramanathan of the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP). The TNA secured 78.48 per cent of total votes, while the UPFA managed 18.38 per cent of votes, followed by the SLMC with 1.5 per cent.
Despite international apprehensions and some foreign organizations crying wolf, the elections were more or less violence free. However, in one incident, Ananthy Sasitharan, a female TNA candidate's residence in the Valakamparai area of Jaffna District was attacked on September 19, 2013. About 10 of her supporters and a lawyer attached to the local election monitoring group, People's Action for Free and Fair Election (PAFFREL), were assaulted. Separately, the local election monitoring group, Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE) stated that its observer, Gunarasa, had been attacked in Kilinochchi District on Election Day (September 21). CaFFE accused supporters of the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP), who were distributing food among voters, for engineering the attack. In another incident, the Center for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV), another local poll monitor, reported that the bodyguards of Minister Rishad Bathiyutheen allegedly assaulted Mannar District candidate of Our Nation Party, Abdul Salam Mohomad Hilmy, near the entrance of a polling station at the Kokkupaddayam Roman Catholic Tamil Mixed School in Mannar District, on September 21, 2013.
Commonwealth Mission head and Kenya's former Vice President, Stephen Kalonzo Musyoka, on September 22, 2013, observed, "Generally the voting day went very, very smoothly. President Rajapaksa wants to demonstrate greater political tolerance and the fact that he allows the voters in the north to vote the way they wish will certainly be a positive thing."
Though this was the first ever Provincial Council Election in the North since the creation of Councils as a result of the 13th Amendment in Sri Lanka's Constitution, the outcome of the Indo-Lanka Accord, 1987, the Northern Province had already witnessed Presidential Elections in January 2010, Parliamentary Elections in April 2010 and elections for local bodies, which were held across the country in 2011. While only 28 per cent of registered voters turned up during the Parliamentary Elections in 2010, 32 per cent voted in the 2011 local Government elections.
Along with the NPC elections, polls were also conducted for the North Western Provincial Council and Central Provincial Council on September 21, 2013. Unsurprisingly, the UPFA secured a convincing victory in both the Council elections, obtaining 34 of 52 seats in the North Western Provincial Council, and 36 of 58 seats in the Central Provincial Council.
The TNA had contested the polls with an election manifesto presented on September 3, 2013, in which it called for self-determination in the Tamil-dominated North under a federal structure, and the merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces. Criticizing the TNA manifesto, Gunadasa Amarasekera, General Secretary of Patriotic National Movement, filed a petition in the Supreme Court on September 16, 2013, appealing that the TNA election manifesto be declared violative of the Constitution. The petitioner asserted that the TNA manifesto was in line with the 'hidden agenda' of the LTTE. On September 18, 2013, the Supreme Court issued notice on the leaders of the TNA to appear before the court on October 2, 2013, to show cause regarding the constitutionality of the TNA election manifesto.
Significantly, eight persons were arrested on September 13, 2013, in the Kodikarmam area of Jaffna District, on charges of possession of posters with pictures of former LTTE leader Vellupillai Parabhakaran. Police said this was the first time such posters had been found in the Northern Province since the war ended in 2009. Meanwhile, the Commander of the Army in the Jaffna peninsula, Major General Mahinda Hathurusinghe on September 17, 2013, claimed that there was a possibility of about 4,000 former LTTE combatants, who were still at large, regrouping, with the TNA glorifying the slain LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran in its campaign for the NPC elections.
Nevertheless, addressing a media briefing in Jaffna District on September 22, 2013, following the party's landslide victory, TNA leader R. Sampanthan declared that his party was ready to assist the Government in fully implementing the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, and was ready to participate in the Parliament Select Committee (PSC) appointed to resolve the 'national issue', if the Government agreed to a meaningful measure of devolution of powers.
The Sri Lanka Government has taken great pride in the progress it has made in the rehabilitation, developmental and democratic process in the war-torn North over the past years, and the Provincial elections underline its continuing success. However, voters in the Northern Province have clearly demonstrated, once again, their overriding loyalty to their regional party. Colombo will have to find ways of working with the TNA, if a lasting solution to the political and constitutional crisis is to be found.
(The writer S. Binodkumar Singh is Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management)
(The view expressed in the article is of the author and not India Blooms News Service)
(Posted on 24-09-2013)