Monday, 23 September 2013 00:50
Four years after the end of the war, the Northern Province delivers a strong message to the Government by giving the TNA an overwhelming provincial mandateat Saturday’s historic poll
By Dharisha Bastians in Jaffna
When the bells rang out at the Nallur temple at 6:30 a.m. on Saturday, voters had already queued up to vote in front of Mangayarkarasi Maha Vidyalayam located opposite the famous Jaffna landmark. By daybreak yesterday, results of Sri Lanka’s most historic post war election were out and citizens of the war ravaged Northern Province had used their ballots to deliver the Government its most crushing electoral defeat since it was swept to power in 2005.
The Tamil National Alliance contesting under the old Federal Party or Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi symbol of the House in Saturday’s historic election had won 78% of the Province wide vote and clinched 30 seats or five-sixths in the country’s first Northern Provincial Council.
The TNA victory is seen as an overwhelming endorsement of the TNA’s call for greater autonomy in the north and a clear message to the ruling Government that has prioritised fast-paced development over genuine reconciliation in the former conflict zone.
“We bow to the resilience of our people,” the TNA’s National List Legislator M.A. Sumanthiran says, moments after the party’s victory is officially announced. “The TNA secured a great victory despite heavy odds – blatant violations, voter intimidation and violence against its candidates,” the Parliamentarian charged.
Although polling day had been largely peaceful, sporadic incidents of violence and intimidation reported from certain areas and confirmed by election monitors deployed in the north had resulted in lower than anticipated turnout in some parts of the Province – and especially in the Jaffna District. “Had Jaffna voters been able to poll without these pressures,” the TNA Leader R. Sampanthan tells reporters the morning after, “the TNA would have won all 16 seats in the Jaffna District.”
Early results of postal voting in the Northern Province showed the TNA was leading by huge margins, despite the fact that postal voters are traditionally public servants often serving outside their home districts. The fact that Government servants were voting overwhelmingly in support of the main opposition party contesting in the north was an early projection that the TNA was going to win big in the Province.
In the final tally, the TNA won every electoral district in the Northern Province. The Party’s Chief Ministerial Candidate and retired Supreme Court Justice C.V. Wigneswaran and the popular Ananthi Sasitharan, the wife of former LTTE Political Commissar for Trincomalee, had individually polled higher in Jaffna than the UPFA had in all of the north.
But the prize catch for the Tamil party was the victory in the Kayts polling division in Jaffna. In what was until Saturday evening the traditional stronghold of the Douglas Devananda-led EPDP, the TNA obtained more than 67% of the votes polled, shattering the UPFA’s hopes of a single win in the Northern Province.
In the 2010 Parliamentary election, Devananda, who was contesting on the UPFA ticket, had obtained 71% of the votes in the Kayts polling divisions. Conversely, in Saturday’s poll, the EPDP’s leading candidate Sinnathurai Thavarajah failed to win a seat on the Northern Council.
“Many people in Jaffna believe that the EPDP would have done better if it had contested on its own rather than in coalition with the UPFA,” Ahilan Kadirgamar, a Political Economist based in Jaffna explains. He says the northern vote was a decisive protest against the Government because of the continuing militarisation and lack of a political settlement.
The last time residents here voted to elect provincial representatives was in 1988, when the north and east were still one administrative unit. Since demerger of the North-East Province in 2006, the Eastern Council has been twice elected. On Saturday citizens of the north finally got their turn.
Participating in a hard-won election, conducted largely due to pressure from India and the international community, nearly 68% of registered voters in the Northern Province cast their ballot. But for Sri Lankans living in the former conflict zones of the north, this election clearly means much more.
In Mallakam, about half an hour away from Jaffna town, the 84-year-old C. Rajamani limps towards a school that serves as a polling booth for the day. She has been displaced for 20 years and resides in a camp for the internally displaced near Valigamam. For Rajamani, Saturday’s election is a symbol of hope for change. But most importantly, she says, it is about the possibility of finally returning home.
“It has been many, many years since I ran away from my place fearing death. All I had was the sari I was wearing. I did not take a single vessel or utensil even,” she tells the Daily FT outside the polling booth. “I am voting just so that I can return to my own place, my home,” she explains.
Other elderly voters believe the vote is about the future of the Tamil people. The last time elections were held here, the 80-year-old Sivayogam was able to walk to the polling booth, she says. “Now we are old,” she says, leaving a polling booth near the Nallur temple in a three-wheeler. “The future of our people depends on what this newly-elected provincial council can do, so we are here,” she said.
In Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu, the former LTTE strongholds of the Wanni where polls observers anticipated much lower voter turnouts than in the rest of the province due to heavy militarisation and the great distance from residences to polling stations, more than 70% polled last Saturday.
Sumanthiran tells the Daily FT that the party’s final rally in the Wanni had drawn an unprecedented crowd. “They didn’t need to turn up in that volume – but they did. We sensed the enthusiasm then,” he explains. But for a few hours on Saturday afternoon, with reports that voting was less brisk as a result of a series of violations, the TNA had some anxious moments, the TNA MP acknowledges with a smile.
Ahilan Kadirgamar says the Government’s development and reconstruction program has for the most part failed. “People have not experienced the peace dividend. Except for the positive reception of rural electrification and some rural roads, the rural people’s economic life continues to be dire,” Kadirgamar noted.
As the TNA settles into the prose of governance, it will likely experience a crisis of expectations, analysts like Kadirgamar observe.
“The TNA has raised expectations, and more worryingly the peddling of extreme Tamil nationalist discourse in the election campaign will make the TNA’s ability to focus on day-to-day issues difficult. In fact, the major challenge before the TNA is to transform itself from an oppositional voice to a party that governs,” the Political Economist told the Daily FT.
TNA MP for Jaffna Suresh Premachandra acknowledges the problem. “The frustration of the people was evident – but I wonder whether they understand the provincial council system and how much it can honestly deliver,” he explains on Sunday afternoon. “The people have been frustrated so long and expect so much. If we don’t deliver, mark my words, the next time they will dismiss us out of hand,” he warns.
Flushed with victory and smarting with defeat, Jaffna and Colombo have both agreed to work with each other in post-poll announcements.
“We urge the Government to respect the democratic verdict of the northern people and cooperate with the Northern Council going forward,” TNA Leader Sampanthan said in Jaffna last evening. Addressing the media in Colombo, Economic Development Minister and chief architect of the Government’s Northern Spring development drive, said he was willing to work on the development agenda with the TNA. Hopeful signs after an acrimonious and bitterly fought polls battle over the last two months.
The nationalistic rhetoric adopted in both the north and the south ahead of Saturday’s election will not make co-habitation between the provincial administration and the central Government easier in the coming weeks and months. But the uneasy future does not worry northerners much the morning after the historic poll.
In street corners and outside the Nallur Kovil, people are huddled in small groups, engaged in animated discussion. At 4 p.m. yesterday, people thronged newsstands in Jaffna town to pick up special evening editions of the Thinnakural and Uthayan newspapers to study preferential voting results. There is a marked absence of fire-crackers and overt celebration, but all over Jaffna, there is a sense of suppressed triumph. In this part of the country, there hasn't been much to celebrate in a very long time.