It should have not caused surprise that the unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo on 17 February 2008, coupled with its swift recognition by several influential Western countries, generated considerable concern within Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s was subsequently among the first governments to take an international stance on Kosovo, with a public denunciation of the declaration. Colombo officials said that the example of Kosovo could set an ‘unmanageable’ precedent in the current world order, potentially posing a ‘grave threat’ to international peace and security. Against this backdrop, gaining both military and political control over the east of the island – albeit with the help of former LTTE members – became the front line of the government’s strategy to ensure that Sri Lanka will not follow in the footsteps of Kosovo.
And, indeed, on 10 March, the Sri Lankan government notched up a significant victory in its war against militancy, with the successful conduct of local-government elections in the eastern Batticaloa District. Parts of the district had been under LTTE administration for well over a decade. During the ceasefire period between 2002 and 2005 (after which the war resumed), the LTTE had been able to establish courts under its own laws, much to the chagrin of those who saw the peace process as dangerously legitimising rebel governance in the north and east of the country. But in April 2006, with the Ceasefire Agreement in tatters, the Colombo government launched a major military offensive that eliminated the LTTE’s formal presence from the east – including, by July 2007, its strongholds in Batticaloa.
Colombo’s decision to conduct local-government elections in Batticaloa was contested by opposition parties, which resorted to legal action, as well as by civil-society groups. The argument was that fair and free elections were precluded by the conditions of violence that had prevailed in Batticaloa over the past several months. Just a few weeks before the polls, there were reports of virtual anarchy in the district, with armed groups openly on the prowl. Most of these groups were allegedly in league with the government, but there were also worries that the LTTE was capable of reclaiming the district.
A further complicating factor was that the government had officially decided that its partner in the east would be the Tamileela Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP), the Karuna-led breakaway LTTE faction that had, worryingly, retained its arms. According to both the TMVP and Colombo officials, these weapons were needed for self-defence, and that any disarming of the TMVP cadre would put them in danger of LTTE assassination attempts. TMVP officials enthusiastically supported the elections, arguing that the polls were of particular importance to them as a way of gaining democratic legitimacy.
As it turned out, Batticaloa’s local elections did indeed take place in a largely peaceful environment. Any untoward incident reported by independent election monitors was of a minor nature. Voter turnout was in excess of 56 percent, and the polls were keenly contested in several areas. Although there were reports of intimidation of candidates, the absence of violence, including in the run-up to the polls, was significant, as was the presence of large numbers of police personnel during the actual voting process.
Two parties chose not to contest the elections – the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which is supportive of the LTTE, and the largest national opposition party, the United National Party (UNP). The explanation given by the party leaders was fear of violence. Choosing not to stand, however, undoubtedly deprived the electorate in the east of choices on the ballot. Indeed, in some areas there was no real contest, and the TMVP ultimately romped to victory in eight of the nine local authorities. One was also won by the ruling United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA), with which the TMVP had a pact.
On to provincial polls
The relatively healthy turnout of voters in the Batticaloa elections was an indication of the desire of the people in the east for a change from the conditions of war and militancy, and for a restoration of democratic institutions. In the aftermath, however, critics have pointed out the relatively high proportion of spoiled votes – ballots that had been marked incorrectly by, for instance, putting a single large X across the entire paper. Spoiled ballots ultimately exceeded 12 percent of the total. This expressed the discontent of those who felt impelled to vote – possibly due to worries over retribution by TMVP cadres. But the X’s also signified an effort to prevent their votes being used by others, and to register protest against the one-horse nature of the voice, that too by a party that was as yet armed.
Following the generally positive assessment of the Batticaloa local elections, Colombo has announced the holding of provincial elections for the three districts of the east – Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Ampara. The last time that provincial elections were held in the east was as far back as 1988, the year following the signing of the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord and the establishment of the system of provincial councils under it. At that time, the northern and eastern provinces constituted one merged unit.
Today, however, the two provinces have been de-merged, following a 2006 decision by the Supreme Court that found that the merger had been instituted outside of the Constitution. The North East Provincial Council likewise met an unhappy ending, being dissolved in 1991 by then-President Ranasinghe Premadasa, when its chief minister, Varatharaja Perumal, made a unilateral declaration of independence – an incident of which Kosovo’s recent announcement may have been an uncomfortable reminder for some. But elections are not a panacea for Sri Lanka’s problems. If the Colombo government wants to prevent a replay of Kosovo in the island, it will have to engage more seriously with deep-seated issues of identity, marginalisation and self-determination – for which no election can provide a quick remedy.