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Will Sri Lankan voters choose stability? – upiasia.com

[MISC, Wednesday, 5 August 2009 20:04 No Comment]

Elections to the Jaffna and Vavuniya town councils in Sri Lanka will be held on Saturday. Although local, and limited to a small population, the elections are important from a larger political perspective, as they will enable the government to respond to international pressures to follow up its military victory with a political solution to the ethnic situation.

The government has pledged to implement the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which devolves power to elected provincial councils. Although the prevailing provincial council system is widely seen as weak, the establishment of a provincial council for the Northern Province offers some evidence of forward movement in the direction of a political solution.

For the past several years, both Jaffna and Vavuniya were militarized due to the high level of infiltration by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the government’s counter-insurgency operations. Local government elections were last held in Jaffna in 1998 and in Vavuniya in 1994, when Tamil paramilitary parties collaborated with government security forces to keep the LTTE at bay. Presently, despite the end of the war, tight security measures continue to prevail in both towns.

The current election campaign has been relatively peaceful and free from overt violence. This is unlike what happened during elections in the Eastern Province in 2007 when the breakaway faction of the LTTE, the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal, contested the elections while retaining their arms. This was justified on the grounds of self-defense as the LTTE, despite its defeat, continued to retain a presence in the east.

Inevitably, the arms of the TMVP were used to intimidate the general population as well as election officials, which severely marred the elections. The difference today in the northern campaign suggests that former militants, who lead political parties in the north, are more politically mature than their eastern counterparts.

There is reason to believe that the government expects future developments in the Northern Province to follow a sequence of events similar to those in the Eastern Province in 2007. After the government recaptured LTTE-held areas in that province, it quickly held local government elections in Batticaloa, followed by elections for the Provincial Council of the Eastern Province, both of which it won in alliance with the TMVP.

The frontrunner in the elections for Jaffna is the Eelam People’s Democratic Party, which is a coalition partner of the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance and is contesting the Jaffna elections under its banner. The leader of the EPDP, Douglas Devananda, is a Cabinet minister who has harbored a long-standing ambition to become the chief minister of the Northern Provincial Council.

But Devananda is a controversial figure with most Tamils due to his past militant background and his support for the government. However, he has also been a strong proponent of the fuller implementation of the 13th Amendment, which would provide a measure of self-rule to the provinces, and has worked hard at providing economic benefits to his constituents in Jaffna.

The EPDP is one of the few political parties to welcome the government’s decision to hold local elections in the north at this time. The party’s position was that local government elections should be held in other parts of the north as well, culminating in provincial elections, which would enable the formation of an elected Provincial Council for the north.

Although the EPDP preferred to contest the elections under its own banner, it came under strong government pressure to do so under the banner of the ruling alliance or run the risk of separation, whereby the government would contest jointly with the former leader of the TMVP, Karuna Amman, instead.

The other contesting Tamil political parties are running in opposition to the government-EPDP alliance. Among them are the Tamil National Alliance, Tamil United Liberation Front and the People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam. The two prominent leaders here are V. Anandasangaree of the TULF, who was a fierce but nonviolent opponent of the LTTE, and D. Siddarthan of the PLOTE, which is a party that retained its arms and is reputed to engage in paramilitary functions.

While Siddarthan’s PLOTE is expected to do well in Vavuniya, it is unlikely that Anandasangaree’s TULF will be able to organize itself for an effective political campaign, especially in the face of rival Tamil parties that have long been present in Jaffna and Vavuniya.

One of the positive features of this election is the ability and willingness of the TNA to contest without boycotting the elections like it did in 2007 in the east. The TNA has been seen as the proxy party of the LTTE, with whose approval it contested the general elections of 2004, winning 22 of the 23 parliamentary seats obtained by Tamil parties in the north and east.

As the party that championed the LTTE cause in the past, it is vulnerable to charges of being collaborators with the LTTE and therefore subject to punitive actions. Three of its parliamentarians were killed in the past three years in circumstances that allege government and Tamil paramilitary complicity.

The country’s main opposition party, the United National Party, as well as the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, will also be contesting the elections. The UNP could be a choice for Tamil voters who do not wish to vote for the ruling alliance or for Tamil parties that are widely considered to be paramilitaries.

The SLMC’s main reason for contesting the northern polls would be to assert a Muslim presence in the north. Although most of the Muslims who lived in the north are now in refugee camps elsewhere in the country, displaced persons have been given the right to vote from their places of temporary habitation. However, the party was unfortunate to have its list of candidates rejected for the Jaffna polls due to the improper filing of nominations.

A public opinion poll carried out by an independent polling organization, Social Indicator, has given some illuminating results about the possible outcome of the Jaffna polls. It showed the government-EPDP alliance in the lead with 24 percent, followed by the TNA with only 7 percent, the TULF with 1 percent and the UNP trailing with 0.4 percent.

But significantly, an overwhelming majority of 67 percent said they were either undecided or did not wish to reveal whom they would vote for. Therefore, the election remains open.

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