Eastern vote

Published : Jun 06, 2008 00:00 IST

The May 10 elections to the Eastern Provincial Council give the ruling combine a favourable result.

in Batticaloa, Ampara and Trincomalee

THE much-awaited elections to Sri Lankas Eastern Provincial Council (EPC) passed off without any major incidents of violence on May 10. There were, of course, Opposition charges of large-scale electoral malpractices but, contrary to apprehensions, there was no bloodshed. Barring a blast in a restaurant in Ampara town on the eve of polling day, which killed 12 people and injured 25, the six weeks in the run-up to the elections were remarkably free of any major violence. This in itself is no mean achievement, given the fact that just under a year ago the province was the theatre of pitched battles between the security forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The elections to constitute the first-ever, 37-member EPC was watched with keen interest by political and diplomatic observers for two reasons. The first and last elections in the merged North-East were held in 1988, and the administration that was formed subsequently, under Chief Minister Varadaraja Perumal, was dissolved in 1990.

The latest EPC elections took place nearly 18 months after the Sri Lanka Supreme Court pronounced, on technical grounds, the merger of the North and the East, effected after the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, illegal. Further, in mid-2007, the government succeeded in wresting pockets under the influence of the LTTE in the east with the help of the breakaway Tiger faction under Colonel Karuna, called TamilEela Makkal Viduthalai Puligal (TMVP).

The ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) teamed up with the TMVP for the EPC elections and was pitted mainly against the United National Party (UNP)-Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) alliance. Tensions on the pre- and post-election scenes were only predictable, considering the very nature of the competing alliances. The UNP-SLMC combines projection of Rauf Hakeem as its chief ministerial candidate was used by opportunists on both sides to give a communal hue to the elections.

The ruling combines game plan perhaps was to benefit from what is termed the traditional Tamil-Muslim antagonism. The question whether a Tamil Chief Minister would be acceptable to Muslims and vice versa was tossed about freely in the course of the campaign. The gamble of the ruling combine appears to have paid off. It walked away with 20 of the 37 seats in the EPC. The UNP-SLMC combine won 15 seats while the Janata Vimukti Peramuna and the Tamil Democratic National Alliance won one seat each. However, the very strategy could prove to be a liability in the long term. The strains in the ruling combine on whether it should be a Tamil or Muslim candidate for the post of Chief Minister is a sign that the outcome of the elections could further complicate the already fragile relations between the two communities.

Part of the reason for the relative absence of violence was the unprecedented security measures. Over 32,000 security and police personnel were deployed to guard 1,022 polling booths. PAFFREL, a non-governmental organisation, and the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) put on ground 2,500 observers, including over 20 international monitors. Reports of independent observer groups give some credence to the Oppositions complaints of irregularities committed by the government. However, the fact that the UNP-SLMC combine polled over 42 per cent of the votes indicates that the charge of massive rigging is exaggerated.

The EPC elections have far-reaching political significance. That an elected council is coming into existence after a gap of two decades in a war-ravaged province is cause for cheer to all those who believe that democracy and genuine devolution of powers are the solution to Sri Lankas principal national question. The constitution of a democratically elected government in the Eastern Province will also set at rest the controversy triggered by the October 2006 judgment of the Sri Lanka Supreme Court declaring the merger of the North and the East illegal.

Paikaiasothy Saravanamuttu, Executive Director of the CPA who spearheaded the independent election monitoring group, wrote thus on the outcome of the EPC elections: The results released reveal that the UPFA has managed to overturn mammoth majorities achieved by the UNP candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe in the 2005 presidential election. In terms of total number of votes cast, its majority over all other parties is some 41,000 votes. Throughout the campaign and on polling day, the election was marred by violence and malpractice. The assessment of Saravanamuttu is simplistic, to say the least.

The comparison of the EPC elections with the 2005 presidential election is not entirely appropriate. To begin with, the presidential race was confined to Mahinda Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe. The UNP of 2005 is different from the UNP today; the party has split vertically at least in Parliament. The political logic of the UNP in teaming up with the SLMC did not necessarily translate into the coming together of Tamils and Muslims, who together account for over 75 per cent of the voters in the East. Given the traditional antagonism between the two communities, the UNP-SLMC alliance was vulnerable to whisper campaign and there is evidence to suggest that it did to some extent pay a price on the ground. Besides, on the eve of the election, Mahinda Rajapaksa succeeded in weaning away a strong leader of the SLMC, M.L.M. Hizbullah, to the ruling side and ensured the division of Muslim votes.

This correspondent, who travelled through the length and breadth of the East after a gap of one year, noted some visible changes in the province. The change was remarkable, particularly in Batticaloa, at least on the surface. For a town that was in the thick of the war between the government forces and the LTTE over a year ago, the calm on the eve of the poll was unbelievable. The private armies, particularly Karunas cadre, which manned the main streets in full military gear along with the Sri Lankan forces, had disappeared. In the course of a four-day road trip, this correspondent encountered the Karuna cadre only in Kawalchikudy town en route to Ampara. Standing right next to a police post, the group waved at our car to stop. The boys explained that they were only seeking a lift to the next town. The Karuna group, now taken over by Pillayan after a factional war, was of course in the forefront of the electoral battle with the full backing of the Mahinda Rajapaksa government. Its aim was the Chief Ministers post. This goal seemed to have softened down the party leadership and the cadre vis-a-vis their approach to the electorate. Though there was no evidence of rejoicing among the people at the prospect of a brand new elected provincial council, they certainly seemed to treat the elections as a welcome breather.

Batticaloa town and most parts of the district are free from the sounds of shells and artillery fired at each other by the military and the Tigers. There is life in the city after 6 p.m. now. People are no longer in fear of the unknown. Compared with the rest of the island barring the North, the cost of living is no doubt high but certainly not as high as it was a year ago. The problems of the internally displaced people (IDPs) persist but they are confined to a few pockets of the town. International and national NGOs help them to the extent possible. The governments focus seems to more on selling the liberation package than on tackling the difficulties faced by the people, particularly the 100,000 IDPs from the security zones.

In the last one year, infrastructure has seen a major improvement here. The highway from Colombo to the town was full of potholes and blockades earlier. It has improved vastly.

Political and diplomatic observers believe that the EPC elections would have a long-term impact on the constitutional framework of the island-nation. There will be wider devolution of powers to the provinces. The LTTE has every reason to be nervous about the developments.

The perpetrators of the Ampara carnage deliberately targeted a Muslim-dominated district. The government has blamed the LTTE for the explosion. The LTTE may be down in the East, but it is certainly not out.

The bulletin of the CPA-led Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) put it thus on election day: The context of violence in which this election is taking place has also been reinforced by the sinking of a Sri Lanka Navy logistics vessel inside the Ashraff jetty in the Trincomalee Harbour this morning. This has been attributed to the LTTE. On the sinking of the vessel, the Defence Ministry said that at 2-15 a.m. an underwater explosion damaged and caused A-520 (MV Invincible) to sink while moored at the Ashroff jetty.

Despite the UNP-SLMC combines perceived advantage vis--vis Muslim voters, the ruling party left no stone unturned to appeal to Muslim votes. Ampara town and district was full of giant cut-outs and posters of Rajapaksa being hugged by the Iranian President during the latters recent visit. No doubt the President staked everything to ensure victory for the alliance.

Chief ministerial hopeful Pillayan has a serious contender in one of the former SLMC leaders who defected to the ruling side on the eve of the elections. At least a dozen Ministers were present in the East, employing their political skills. The President himself addressed an election rally via satellite a day before the campaign closed and promised to usher in a new era in the province if the ruling alliance were elected. In contrast, the Opposition campaign was low-key.

The CPA raised some valid issues relating to the conduct of the elections. It said: The violence and malpractice reinforce the demand for the urgent implementation of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution. Specifically, the reconstitution of the Constitutional Council and its nomination of members to the independent commissions, including for elections, the police and the public service. It was the civil society cry, after all, with regard to electoral violence and malpractice that served as the catalyst for the amendment.

Whilst the implementation of the 17th Amendment is no panacea, the point that needs to be emphasised is that when it was in operation, elections were not marred by such violence and malpractice, with the exclusion of violence clearly perpetrated by the LTTE. Independent commissions provide public servants and the police with some insurance against punishment transfers and other forms of revenge when they stand up to the worst excesses of politicians.

The road ahead for the President and the ruling combine is indeed tough. The military and political gains made in recent months could wither away unless immediate measures are taken for a meaningful devolution of powers and the redress of the legitimate grievances of all communities. The choice of Chief Minister will be watched with keen interest, especially because Tamil, Muslim and Sinhala populations are evenly balanced in the province. Given the tensions in the past over the demographic change brought about by state-sponsored colonisation, a sound and progressive course will be to go in for a rotation arrangement in which the chief ministership will be shared by the Muslim and Tamil groups that have done well at the polls. Providing security to all the displaced people, rehabilitating them, and rebuilding the war-affected areas must be taken up as top priorities. There is also the tricky task of disarming the militant groups, especially the cadre of the Karuna faction, and integrating them into civil society and democratic politics.

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