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Heeding the voices of the North – groundviews

[MISC, Thursday, 13 August 2009 07:00 No Comment]

The results of the elections to the Jaffna Municipality and Vavuniya Urban Council are an instructive measure of the distance to be traveled for peace, reconciliation and national unity. In both cases voter turn out was relatively low, though in the case of the Jaffna Municipality not as low as some commentators have made out. This is because the turn out figure has been calculated on the voter registry of some 104,000 electors, when in actual some 41,000 polling cards could not be distributed on account of the absence of voters from the municipality. They have either come south, joined the diaspora or are languishing in camps unaware of the procedures required for the exercise of their franchise or just not interested in doing so. Consequently, the turn out figure of 20% should be doubled and will effectively stand at something like 40% – some 7% lower than in the 2004 election during the ceasefire period when the LTTE got proactively involved in any number of bad practices to manufacture an electoral result to its liking.

Either way, what is interesting is that in both cases many people who could vote did not, and this in turn was not because they did not possess the relevant voter identification documents, but because they were not interested in doing so. They were interested it appears, in making a point by not doing so. The point they wished to make by staying away from the polling booth was about the inappropriateness of these elections at this time when numerous relations and friends are being detained in camps. They also wanted to register their disdain for elections that had little or nothing to do with their priorities.

This begs the question of what the regime hoped to achieve by calling elections to these local bodies at this point in time. Was it to demonstrate to the international community that a political process was in train in the north and that no time was being lost in mainstreaming democracy there? Was it also aimed at ascertaining opinion in the north in the confident hope that the people there would express their gratitude to the regime for liberating them from the cruel and stultifying yoke of the LTTE? The results confirm that regime expectations along these lines have not been fulfilled. They also indicate that the Tamil nationalist project is alive and that it probably does not look to the Thirteenth Amendment for life support or salvation. No ringing endorsement of the EPDP and/or UPFA. And despite the spin of many a commentator, Mr Devananda is a savvy enough politician to know this. Not surprisingly he is reported to be very disappointed.

Over half the people who were able to vote did not. Of those who did in Jaffna for example, the EPDP/UPFA polled just over 2,000 more votes than the TNA. A significant number of EPDP/UPFA votes were from the Muslim community. As some commentators have pointed out, the combined TNA/TULF vote amongst the Tamil community probably exceeds that of the EPDP/UPFA. Moreover, the vast majority of the Tamils who were able to vote were from the fishing community – a community the regime has cultivated and one whose substantial support it expected on account of its easing the restrictions imposed on fishing. Remedias, a human rights lawyer and TNA mayoral candidate secured the highest number of preferences overall. The EPDP/UPFA candidate could not secure enough preferences to get elected. The much hyped release of some 3,000 IDPs does not seem to have provided the electoral bounce, this blatantly opportunistic act was surely intended to achieve.

Mr Devananda’s disappointment may well be compounded by the growing realization of a very real political dilemma that has been in the making for some time. He may well be wondering if he would have done better had he run on his own symbol and not given in to regime pressure to run on theirs. After all his political profile is characrterized by his unrelenting resistance of the LTTE and unwavering fidelity to the Thirteenth Amendment? Will it now have to be characterized by helplessness in the face of regime force majeure as well as its longest running farce on devolution? As one commentator has pointed out, Douglas’s debacle on the UPFA ticket coincided with newspaper reports of regime plans to pass legislation against ethnically based parties. It would seem that the regime is enamoured with the Malaysian UMNO formula and wants no track with the Unity in Diversity principle. Douglas Devananda, to his credit, does not want to be a Northern Karuna, and after 8 August should make this very clear to the regime.

Neither do the results give the TNA cause for complacency even if they do provide some cause for comfort. If the TNA is to retain the stewardship of the Tamil nationalist project it will have to re fashion it within the parametres of a united Sri Lanka. It also must come out with proposals on IDP return and resettlement and on economic recovery and development of the north. It should not forget that people stayed away from the polls on their own accord and not because the TNA asked them to do so. There is a democratic deficit and the TNA should address itself to bridging it or else they too could encounter diminishing electoral returns into the future.

An unequivocal message from the election results is the centrality of the IDP issue in the hearts and minds of the northern voter. The message the international community too should take from these results is that the prospects for peace, reconciliation and unity will be significantly retarded if there is no demonstrable progress on letting these poor people go. Furthermore, when the results of elections in the north are contrasted with that in Uva and other provinces that have polled in the rest of the country, a stark division of opinion with regard to the regime is abundantly clear. We are still divided and polarized with the need of the hour being peace, reconciliation and unity.

In order to move on these with the urgency they demand and deserve, there should be a time-table for return with priority given and public services restored to those areas, which are not mined or which are least mined. Do we have to wait for another election for another handful of IDPs to be released? On the political front, if the regime is serious about a settlement, it should bring the APRC process to a conclusion and publish its recommendations. The country needs to know as to whether the Thirteenth Amendment will be implemented in full and/or as to whether it will be expanded upon. Does the status quo stay intact, or is to be reformed? And as for human rights is this regime willing and/or able to reverse the culture of impunity in respect of violations. Consider the fate of the COI, its report and the items on the MOD website. As for the Rule of Law, consider the assault on Nipuna Ramanayake.

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