ON August 10, Sri Lanka witnessed its first elections since the military decimation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) by the Sri Lanka Army and the death of its supreme, V. Prabakaran, in May. The elections were held to the Tamil-dominated Jaffna and Vavuniya Municipal Councils and the overwhelmingly Sinhala Uva Provincial Council. The outcome was disturbing to say the least, as it demonstrated convincingly that there was little change in the mindset of the majority and minority communities on the tumultuous events of the past six months.
The pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance (TNA) won five of the 11 seats in the Vavuniya Municipal Council (VMC). The ruling combine, the United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA), which fought the elections in alliance with pro-government Tamil parties such as the Eelam Peoples Democratic Front (EPDP) led by Social Welfare Minister Douglas Devananda, won two seats. The TNA polled 4,279 votes (34.81 per cent) and the Democratic Peoples Liberation Front (DPLF), which refused to contest the election under the symbol of the ruling combine, secured 4,136 votes (33.65 per cent) and three seats. The UPFA obtained 3,045 votes (24.77 per cent).
The TNA emerged as the single largest party in the Jaffna Municipal Council (JMC), securing eight of the 23 seats. The UPFA-EPDP alliance bagged 13 seats and is all set to take control of the JMC. An independent group called Independent Group 1 and the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) led by V. Anandasangaree picked up one seat each.
The highlight of the elections was a turnout of just over 22 per cent in Jaffna and of over 70 per cent in Uva. In Jaffna, out of a total of 1,00,417 registered voters, only 22,280 exercised their franchise. Thanks to large-scale migration and displacements, the Election Commission could register only around 55,000 voters in this round of elections for the JMC.
The high voter turnout and the emphatic victory of the UPFA led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the Uva Provincial Council (UPC) were foregone conclusions given the popularity of the regime among the Sinhala majority and the disarray in the United National Party (UNP), the main opposition party led by former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Of the 34 seats in the council, the UPFA bagged 25 and the UNP seven.
Hours before his dramatic arrest in a South-East Asian country on August 6, the new LTTE chief, Shanmugam Kumaran Tharmalingam alias Kumaran Pathmanathan (KP), had given a call for boycott of the elections though the TNA was in the fray in the JMC and the VMC.
The Election Commission and monitors described the polling process as peaceful. Election Commissioner Dayananda Dissanayake said that compared with the last five elections, in this round the number of violent incidents and electoral law violations were low. This augured well for future elections, he said. For reasons that it did not spell out, the government denied the international media permission to cover the election campaign and polling.
The ruling combine and pro-LTTE elements arrived at diametrically opposite conclusions on the outcome of the JMC elections. In a statement, the Information Department said: Political analysts point out that this result is an endorsement of the mega development projects initiated by the government, namely, the Uthuru Wasanthaya (Northern Spring). The people have reposed their trust in the government. The defeat of the LTTE has resulted in the liberation of the northern people from the brutal clutches of terrorism, and the polls clearly point to this fact through its support to the UPFA government.
In a comment, the pro-LTTE TamilNet website said that with a 20 per cent turnout in the municipal elections, the clear verdict of Eezham Tamils was that they had no confidence in the Sri Lankan state and its institutions.
Douglas Devananda, who was compelled to align his EPDP with the ruling combine, expressed disappointment over the outcome and attributed it to a variety of factors, including resentment among Tamils over the slow progress towards a political resolution of the ethnic strife.
The chief of the DPLF and the Peoples Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), Dharmalingam Sidharthan, even went to the extent of saying in interviews to the local media that the TNAs victory in the VMC was on account of sympathy for the Tigers.
Sidharthan apparently cannot believe that Tamils could choose pro-LTTE representatives to the VMC and the JMC after all the sufferings and miseries inflicted upon them by the Tigers. Support for the TNA from a large number of voters in Vavuniya and a considerable section in Jaffna has nothing to do with their affinity with the LTTE. It is more an assertion of the point that they will continue to strive for a peaceful and democratic way of life as much as they tried to retain their honour, dignity and prestige despite the bulldozing tactics of the LTTE. It is a negative vote and the TNA has benefited by default.
A commentator, writing under the pen name Shanie, noted:
Though the absence of overt violence was a plus point, this was not a function of increased freedom for the populace or fairness in the electoral process. On the contrary, it resulted from the ending of the dual power situation, with the defeat of the Tigers. In the past, the LTTE needed to use terror in order to discourage its opponents in areas not under its control.
Since the Rajapaksas knew full well that the UPFA, on its own, was a non-starter in Jaffna and Vavuniya, even under the most favourable conditions, they compelled the EPDP to contest as a part of the ruling coalition. (Obviously the regime overestimated Minister Devanandas capacity to deliver; at the next election, that hiatus will not be overlooked.) This is another example of the ruling partys strategy of establishing a base in the North and the East, not by winning over minorities, but by absorbing into the UPFA fold those minority parties dependent on official patronage and protection.
There may be a connection between this strategy and the Presidents post-war theory of the non-existence of minorities (and a permanent struggle between patriots and anti-patriots). If there are no minorities in Sri Lanka, there cannot be any minority parties representing minority interests and articulating minority concerns either, by definition.
This theory entails the creation of a Sri Lankan identity not via a democratic and consensual process on the basis of justice and equality but via legal and illegal compulsion. For instance, a new law, which is to be presented to Parliament later this month, would outlaw political parties bearing the identity of a religion or a race. If enacted, this piece of legislation will re-commence the old process (which began with Sinhala Only) of outlawing the assertion of minority identities and demands. This will further alienate the minorities, not just Tamils but also Muslims and perhaps even Sinhala Christians.
With the LTTE militarily defeated, Rajapaksa has a golden opportunity to make a sincere endeavour towards resolution of the root cause of the ethnic conflict. The outcome of the latest round of elections shows him how a consensus can be created among all stakeholders to find a solution to the ethnic conflict.