An electoral siege

Print edition : April 09, 2004

JAFFNA, the epicentre of Sri Lanka's decades-old separatist conflict, is today a town under electoral siege. A calm spreads across the town as the candidates go about seeking popular support for the April 2 parliamentary elections. The candidates move about in vans and their supporters distribute handbills. On the face of it, it is electioneering as usual, if one could overlook the fact that all this is restricted to just one party - the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which is endorsed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The TNA has two planks: that the LTTE should be the sole representative of the Tamils in any negotiations and that its proposals for an Interim Self-Governing Authority (ISGA) for the North-East should be the basis for the negotiations.

A campaign vehicle of the Tamil National Alliance in a residential area in Jaffna.-ANURUDDHA LOKUHAPUARACHCHI/REUTERS

There are three main contestants for the nine seats - the TNA, an independent group led by V. Anandasangaree, president of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), and the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP) led by Douglas Devananda. The campaigning, however, does not reflect this plurality.

"My task is going to be liberating our people [Tamils] from the LTTE," says Anandasangaree sitting inside his heavily guarded office in the heart of Jaffna. The 71-year-old leader who entered Parliament in 1970 was instrumental in carving out a separate Kilinochchi district, where the LTTE now has its headquarters. For his campaign, he said, he had to hire loudspeakers from Colombo as people are scared to attend meetings. He is firm on his stand that the LTTE cannot be the sole representative of Tamils.

Condemning the LTTE's hold over civilians, including those in government-held areas, Anandasangaree said: "They have no business to control anybody." However, with every passing day, he said, he was getting "more direct" in his criticism. Through pamphlets, through postal campaigning and by word of mouth, he is spreading the message that the people have lost their freedom. He is also clear on his parliamentary role. "I will sit in the Opposition, I will refuse to accept any portfolios," he said. The old school of Sri Lankan Tamil politics keeps a distance from positions of power.

Making arrangement for voting in government-held areas for voters in the rebel-controlled Kilinochchi district, Anandasangaree feared, could increase the possibility of impersonation.

The other candidate to dare the LTTE in Jaffna is Devananda, who, true to his style, minces no words: "Even within the LTTE they are not accepted as the sole representatives, so how are the people going to accept it?" On the ISGA proposals, he says the LTTE has a vested interest.

The LTTE's extortion, its "double tax without service", he said, had created disenchantment. Going ahead with his door-to-door campaign, Devananda appears to be extending his base from the islets near Jaffna to the peninsula itself. "The Tigers are running about as if hot water has been poured on their feet," he said. The very fact that they are seeking votes now, while a decade ago they were opposed to elections, has dented the Tigers' image, he said. The EPDP, which is contesting in the North-East and in Colombo, he said, had a target of eight to 10 seats in the 225-member Parliament.

Through an "agreement", the EPDP is also campaigning in the eastern Batticaloa district, including in LTTE-held areas under the control of the rebellious Eastern commander, Karuna. The split in the LTTE and the assertion of Karuna, he said, had further dimmed the chances of the TNA. "Even before this they had lost popular support. When the ceasefire agreement came, there were hopes, but nothing happened. The LTTE did not allow anything to happen," he said.

Under Sri Lanka's proportional representation system, every party has to offer a list of candidates for the voters to indicate their preferences. While the TNA comprises four parties - the Federal Party (F.P.), the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC), the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO) and a faction of the Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front led by Suresh Premachandran (EPRLF-Suresh) - a crucial factor in this election is the number of candidates who are not members of these parties and have been named by the LTTE.

"It is now a race for the list," a prominent candidate said. Just outside Jaffna town, in Chavakachcheri, the TNA's candidate Padmini, who is an LTTE nominee, is actively seeking votes. "We need a woman representative," say her supporters, urging the voters to select her from the list of candidates. "She is not from any political party, she takes care of the Martyrs' cemeteries. I shall weigh all these factors when I cast my vote," a resident said, not revealing his mind.

In Jaffna, popular opinion is not forthcoming. The general nod is for the TNA. Those who admit to have decided to vote for the TNA say that they do so to express Tamil solidarity. Karuna's split, they say "will not affect the TNA's chances". The dissenting voices, though few and careful, are equally emphatic: "It is not going to be easy for the TNA. The LTTE's taxes have become blatant. Especially after the ceasefire agreement, they have been acting with impunity. I will bear this in mind when I cast my vote," a resident said.

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