After 25 years: Curtain rises on northern provincial poll
Saturday, 21 September 2013 00:51
By Dharisha Bastians in Jaffna
On the eve of Sri Lanka’s most crucial post war election for the island’s minority Tamil population, the capital of the Northern Province is a strangely quiet place. Jaffna saw a violent surge in the wee hours of election eve, with the attack on the home of a prominent Tamil National Alliance candidate and consistent reports of intimidation and military involvement in electioneering. But the anticipated fever pitch that brought most of the world’s media to the tiny peninsula in Sri Lanka’s north never materialised and the curtain rises on today’s vote in relative calm.
Today’s election in the Northern-most region of the island is the first time in 25 years that Tamils will vote to elect a provincial administration they were promised in 1987 as part of a political solution to the ethnic struggle, which saw the birth of a brutal separatist movement in the country that waged war on the state for 30 years. In that time between 1988-2013 all nine other provinces have voted provincial representatives in and out of office regularly. Yet nowhere is the New Delhi-designed, somewhat flawed system to grant a degree of political autonomy to the people of a specific region more relevant than in the country’s war-ravaged Northern Province. The international attention focused on the Northern poll, even though two other provinces also poll today, speaks to that relevance.
It is unclear if the Northern voter will cast his ballot today with this weight of history upon his shoulders. The issues facing Tamils of the north and the small but significant minority of Muslims are less ideological. The immediate problems of the northern voter consists of livelihood and resettlement challenges, land issues and contending with heavy militarisation that is marring civil and democratic processes here.
For the ruling party backed EPDP Chief Ministerial candidate who will contest on the UPFA ticket, Sinnathurai Thavarajah, the concerns of the northern voter is essentially concerned with development and post-war rebuilding. On the eve of the election, Thavarajah tells the Daily FT that the Government backed by his Party is addressing those key concerns. Thavarajah claims his party’s main contender the TNA is raising issues completely irrelevant to the provincial council election.
“The removal of the Army from the North, that the TNA is calling for is absolutely nothing to do with the Provincial Council. The council will have no power to transfer a single soldier from this area,” says the EPDP Chief Ministerial hopeful who says the TNA should have kept the issues contained during its campaign. Thavarajah’s party is fielding 16 candidates in today’s poll, where over 900 candidates are vying for 38 seats on the provincial assembly.
Thavarajah says the main Tamil party contesting in the region is seeking to win votes by playing on people’s emotions. “The people must decide, whether they will vote on sentiment or whether they will vote for the party that can actually do something for them pragmatically,” he says.
The Tamil National Alliance, the party that is widely expected to win a majority in today’s election has addressed the broader issues of oppression, state interference, militarisation and discrimination during its polls campaign. As the party pushing for greater devolution for the people of the north and east, the TNA will frame any mandate it receives as an endorsement of its stand that the Government continues to marginalise the Tamils while refusing to grant an acceptable solution to the Tamil problem.
The TNA’s Chief Ministerial hopeful and former Supreme Court Judge C.V. Wigneswaran who relaxed at a popular Jaffna guest house on the eve of the historic polls, believes the election is being held because of Indian pressure on the Sri Lankan Government. The ex-Judge who has been criticised recently in the south for taking a hardline position on election platforms, says that against all odds, the 13th Amendment to the constitution is sticking. “Every other agreement between the majority community and the minority community was thrown to the winds; whether the Band-Chelva pact or the Dudley Chelva pact or the District Councils Act,” said Wigneswaran. “The 13th Amendment survives because of backing by India,” he explains. For Wigneswaran and the TNA, this international dimension forms a kind of protective barrier between the soon to be constituted Provincial Council and the Government that is seeking to dilute the powers of the regional bodies. “The TNA will work the democratic institutions available to us and we have the added strength of the international community having come to know the real problems faced by the Tamil community today,” he asserts.
In terms of the democratic process, the Northern Province, the polls lead up has shown, has a distance to go. Throughout the province, tension is reported due to military involvement in the election process. Issuing its interim report on the Mullaitivu District, the former LTTE stronghold in the Wanni, the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) warned yesterday that a lower voter turnout was possible due to disillusionment with the election process. The CMEV report cites the long distances to polling stations, the continued misuse of state resources by the ruling party and some indirect military interference as contributing to this apathy about today’s poll. According to TNA National List MP M.A. Sumanthiran, the military is openly backing at least three candidates on the ruling party list. “In Vadamarachchi today I observed soldiers putting up posters,” he told Daily FT last evening. The situation is complex in the Wanni, Sumanthiran explains, since the military coexists with the people there and have built certain connections. “The people say when they come to us and say, please vote for these people, it is difficult to say no, because these are also people they know now,” he says. The TNA MP and lawyer says these are the fundamental problems that crop up when the military integrates too heavily with a civilian populace. A poster campaign throughout Jaffna in the two days before the election urged people to reject the TNA unless they want another war. Yesterday, posters came up in Jaffna town featuring Wigneswaran and the candidate number 7 even though his true number is 10. “Trying to confuse the voters,” quips the ex-Judge last evening.
Despite the obvious tension between the ruling party contestants and the TNA candidates, both main contenders for the province’s top electoral slot express optimism about the likely voter turnout today. Thavarajah claims at least 60% of the 700,000 plus registered voters in the Province will cast their ballots. Wigneswaran also believes turnout will be high and the TNA says the people of the north have shown tremendous enthusiasm about the election in the past two weeks. But for all the enthusiasm, it is unlikely the freshly elected council will make much headway on key issues, with the budgets and powers of the provincial assemblies largely controlled by an all powerful Central Government and Executive President.
But the EPDP’s Sinnathurai Thavarajah who remains confident of a win today despite conventional wisdom favouring the more nationalist TNA, strikes an optimistic and conciliatory note as the world turns its attention on Sri Lanka’s north for the next 24 hours. Unlike a parliamentary election that sends Tamil representatives to a Sinhalese dominated assembly, the Northern Provincial Council election is crucial to the people of the region because it will be run by Tamils, says the Government backed candidate. “Whoever comes to power, the majority will be Tamils,” he says, “for the first time the Tamils of the north will manage a council.”