SRI LANKA: Northerners go to the polls


Voters in northern Sri Lanka go to the polls on 23 July in what could prove a litmus test of public sentiment in the former conflict zone, say experts.

Security has been beefed up ahead of the polls

The crucial local elections are the first in the area since the government declared victory in 2009 over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which had been fighting for an independent Tamil homeland since 1983.

"This is a real opportunity for the people of the north to have a voice; to let the government know how they are feeling," Soosaipillai Keethaponcalan, head of the department of political science at the University of Colombo, told IRIN.

The last elections to be held in the north were the presidential and parliamentary elections of January and April 2010.

Of the 65 local administrative bodies to be decided nationwide, 20 will be determined in the north, including 16 in Jaffna District, three in Kilinochchi and one in Mullaitivu.

More than 440,000 people are eligible to vote in the three northern districts, according to Sri Lanka's Department of Elections, many of them displaced in the final days of the conflict.

But aside from the numbers, the results could also prove a resounding approval or rejection of the government's policies in the north.

"If the government-linked parties win, the government would take the victory to the international community as an example of its support in the former war zone," Keethaponcalan said.

Government efforts

In the run-up to the elections, the Sri Lankan government is taking no chances and has made a concerted effort to convince voters of its development work over the past two years.

Between 18 and 20 July, President Mahinda Rajapaksa toured the region, attending several meetings, including a final rally for the ruling United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) in Kilinochchi, the former de-facto capital of the LTTE, as well as a ceremony to mark the handover of 100 homes to recent returnees by the army.

According to the president's website, the trip marked the longest stay by a head of state in the north since the country gained independence from Britain in 1948.

Yet whether that personal touch will prove enough is unclear.

The government's stiffest challenge is likely to come from the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), a party representing the minority Tamils, who are the majority in the north.

"This government is taking the local government elections in the north very seriously," Muttukrishna Sarvananthan, head of the Point Pedro Development Institute, an independent research institution, based in the former conflict region, said. "The ruling coalition wants to win and show the world that TNA and Tamil nationalism are on the wane."

Hundreds of thousands of displaced have returned to the area

In the 2010 April parliamentary elections, the TNA won a comfortable majority in the Northern Province, beating Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP), a government ally. Keethaponcalan says the TNA victory reflected the mindset of the northern voter.

"They had the chance to vote in a government ally, which would have guaranteed fast-tracked development. But instead the choice was the TNA, an opposition party," he said. "It is an indication that for the northern voters political issues still override development."

Peace and reconciliation

Others believe the polls will be a strong barometer of the direction this island nation of 20 million is taking.

"It would also give a boost to the ability of Tamils to articulate their concerns through the democratic process, which can only be a good thing for anyone concerned with the long-term health of Sri Lanka," Alan Keenan, a senior analyst and Sri Lanka Project Director for the International Crisis Group (ICG), told IRIN from London.

Earlier this week, the Brussels-based group released a report entitled Reconciliation in Sri Lanka: Harder than Ever, calling on major international powers such as the US, European Union, Japan and India to exert more pressure on the government to expedite the return to normality.

"Triumphalist in its successful 'war on terror', the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa has refused to acknowledge, let alone address, the Tamil minority's legitimate grievances against the state," the report claims.

Meanwhile, with campaigning at fever pitch, expectations remain high that Sri Lankans understand the importance of the elections before them.

"There is a lot of buzz and enthusiasm here," says Narismman Sathyamorthi, a bulk rice supplier from Jaffna. "Everyone knows what this all about. I don't think anyone has any doubt as to the importance of this poll."

And he may be right, with a sizeable turnout expected, unless there are security-related incidents. Ironically, polls for local administrative bodies in other parts of the country hardly elicit a second glance from voters.

"A good voter turnout will take place [in the north] if there are no intimidations and there is transport," Keerthi Tennakkon, executive director of the national election monitoring body Campaign for Free and Fair Elections, said.

Source: IRIN