The Eastern Province gets going (or does it?)

By : Mirak RaheemSri Lankans have become used to the idea of elections every year, so the polls for the Eastern Provincial Council should have been just another routine exercise. Yet this was not the case in early May. These elections were being held for a provincial council that had not been constituted for more than a decade, in a province that had experienced large-scale fighting, destruction of neighbourhoods and public buildings, mass displacement and human-rights violations.

Provincial Councils were first established as a part of the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord, and the north and east were merged in deference to the demand by Tamil nationalists. During the last two years, there have been dramatic changes on the ground. The north and east was de-merged following a 2006 Supreme Court order. The A?a??E?shadow warA?a??a?? between the security forces, the LTTE and other Tamil militant groups became a full-scale war, in breach of the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement. In the two years since the de-merger, the governmentA?a??a??s military takeover of the east was almost complete, paving the way for political consolidation.

On 10 May, elections were held in the three constituent districts of the Eastern Province A?a??a?? Ampara, Batticaloa and Trincomalee A?a??a?? amidst tight security, and observed by a number of election-monitoring groups. Some 982,751 registered voters had to choose from more than 18 political parties in order to elect 37 council members, one of whom would assume the post of chief minister. The governing alliance A?a??a?? the United PeopleA?a??a??s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), which included the breakaway group from the LTTE, the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikhal (TMVP) A?a??a?? won in seven of the ten polling divisions, with an overall majority of 52 percent and ultimately 20 of the seats. The opposition coalition, of the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), won some 42 percent of the vote and 15 seats. This left just two seats for other parties.

Before getting lost in the political implications of the victory, it could be useful to look at the popular response to the election. Altogether 65.8 percent of registered voters cast their ballot; in Sri Lanka, this turnout is not impressive. The question that civil-society leaders of Batticaloa asked when confronted by the local-government elections that were held in that district this March still stands: A?a??A?For whom are these elections?A?a??A?

High stakes, A?a??E?lowA?a??a?? turnout

Scepticism about the elections was reflected in the voter turnout, which was all the more unimpressive given the urgency with which the government and political parties treated the exercise. Of its massive cabinet of 108 ministers, the government sent many into the three districts, and was eventually accused of misusing government property, vehicles and employees for campaign work. The ministers were also accused of bringing in thugs from outside, who were reportedly involved in intimidation.

The leadership of the SLMC resigned from their parliamentary seats in order to contest the elections. While the main Tamil party from the north and east, the Tamil National Alliance, did not attempt to contest the poll, citing the security situation, this action is unlikely to de-legitimise the results, given the participation of all the other main political parties. But the fact of the matter is that each of these main parties had a point to prove. The government had to establish that it had the popular support of the people it had A?a??E?liberatedA?a??a??; the TMVPA?a??a??s political future depended on its ability to claim the chief-ministerial berth; the SLMC had to show that it carried the confidence of the Muslim community; and the UNP needed to confirm that it had the ability to win elections.

While there were no killings reported on election day A?a??a?? which is significant in a country where this has been a trend A?a??a?? there were various forms of violence and intimidation reported, particularly in Tamil and Muslim areas. The issue of violence and malfeasance is now being raised not just by the political parties, but also by the various election-monitoring groups, with some, such as the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV), demanding a re-poll in certain areas. (On the other hand, a group of 17 international observers invited by the government claimed that they had witnessed a free and fair election.) The majority of reported violations were against the TMVP and other constituents of the UPFA. CMEV reported that in several polling stations in Tirukkovil, a largely Tamil area in Ampara, there was A?a??E?impersonationA?a??a??. Here, even children cast votes for the TMVP, using ballot cards that were being distributed in front of the polling station. In Kathankudy, a largely Muslim town in Batticaloa, groups gathered outside polling stations and attempted to distribute false ID cards, so that people could vote.

With the national and international election monitors having departed and political parties back to A?a??E?businessA?a??a??, violence was continuing as of deadline. Some of this is clearly election related. There have been attacks on the houses of candidates and their supporters, particularly in Batticaloa and Valaichennai. In others incidents, such as the shooting of two Sinhala policemen in Batticaloa town on 13 May, the reasons are unknown. There are now worries that these violations will simply become part of the wider human-rights crisis concentrated in the east and north.

While there is a serious need for the Election Commissioner to look into the violations in an independent manner, and conduct re-polling where necessary, the election results cannot be dismissed simply as the result of mass intimidation and fraud. It is conceivable that the political planks of the government and the TMVP did resonate with the electorate. For its part, the government initiated a number of development projects on the ground leading up to the elections, and may have convinced the constituents that supporting the ruling coalition would be the most effective method of securing funds to rebuild livelihoods and local economies. It is also possible that the governmentA?a??a??s evident openness towards appointing a chief minister from any community made it easier to campaign among the minorities. On the security front, of course, the government is on less sure footing, at least with regards to the Tamil community.

Communalism and


The Eastern ProvinceA?a??a??s demography is a tight balance between the three main ethnic groups in Sri Lanka: the Sinhalese, here accounting for a quarter of the population; and the Tamils and Muslims, more or less equally making up the rest. That there is now a contest as to whether the Muslims have overtaken the Tamils as the majority community in the Eastern Province indicates the extreme level of ethnicisation in politics of the east.

It was clear at the outset that this election would be fought on communal lines. The election speeches of a number of the candidates directly addressed the fears of each ethnic group, rather than addressing the shared problems and hopes of the people. The two main alliances sought to present a multi-party grouping and pluralist candidate list, but the communal lines were already clearly drawn. The UNP-SLMC alliance put forward the SLMC leader, Rauf Hakeem, as it main candidate, and warned that electing a TMVP leader could threaten to split the country. But the alliance faced a major obstacle in encouraging Tamils to come forward to vote. Prominent Tamils were simply fearful of contesting against the TMVP.

To be cont.

Himal Southasi


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