Sri Lankans have become used to the idea of elections every year, so the polls for the Eastern Provincial Council should have been just another routine exercise. Yet this was not the case in early May. These elections were being held for a provincial council that had not been constituted for more than a decade, in a province that had experienced large-scale fighting, destruction of neighbourhoods and public buildings, mass displacement and human-rights violations.
Provincial Councils were first established as a part of the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord, and the north and east were merged in deference to the demand by Tamil nationalists. During the last two years, there have been dramatic changes on the ground. The north and east was de-merged following a 2006 Supreme Court order. The ‘shadow war’ between the security forces, the LTTE and other Tamil militant groups became a full-scale war, in breach of the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement. In the two years since the de-merger, the government’s military takeover of the east was almost complete, paving the way for political consolidation.
On 10 May, elections were held in the three constituent districts of the Eastern Province – Ampara, Batticaloa and Trincomalee – amidst tight security, and observed by a number of election-monitoring groups. Some 982,751 registered voters had to choose from more than 18 political parties in order to elect 37 council members, one of whom would assume the post of chief minister. The governing alliance – the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), which included the breakaway group from the LTTE, the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikhal (TMVP) – won in seven of the ten polling divisions, with an overall majority of 52 percent and ultimately 20 of the seats. The opposition coalition, of the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), won some 42 percent of the vote and 15 seats. This left just two seats for other parties.
Before getting lost in the political implications of the victory, it could be useful to look at the popular response to the election. Altogether 65.8 percent of registered voters cast their ballot; in Sri Lanka, this turnout is not impressive. The question that civil-society leaders of Batticaloa asked when confronted by the local-government elections that were held in that district this March still stands: “For whom are these elections?”
High stakes, ‘low’ turnout
Scepticism about the elections was reflected in the voter turnout, which was all the more unimpressive given the urgency with which the government and political parties treated the exercise. Of its massive cabinet of 108 ministers, the government sent many into the three districts, and was eventually accused of misusing government property, vehicles and employees for campaign work. The ministers were also accused of bringing in thugs from outside, who were reportedly involved in intimidation.
The leadership of the SLMC resigned from their parliamentary seats in order to contest the elections. While the main Tamil party from the north and east, the Tamil National Alliance, did not attempt to contest the poll, citing the security situation, this action is unlikely to de-legitimise the results, given the participation of all the other main political parties. But the fact of the matter is that each of these main parties had a point to prove. The government had to establish that it had the popular support of the people it had ‘liberated’; the TMVP’s political future depended on its ability to claim the chief-ministerial berth; the SLMC had to show that it carried the confidence of the Muslim community; and the UNP needed to confirm that it had the ability to win elections. While there were no killings reported on election day – which is significant in a country where this has been a trend – there were various forms of violence and intimidation reported, particularly in Tamil and Muslim areas.
The issue of violence and malfeasance is now being raised not just by the political parties, but also by the various election-monitoring groups, with some, such as the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV), demanding a re-poll in certain areas. (On the other hand, a group of 17 international observers invited by the government claimed that they had witnessed a free and fair election.) The majority of reported violations were against the TMVP and other constituents of the UPFA. CMEV reported that in several polling stations in Tirukkovil, a largely Tamil area in Ampara, there was ‘impersonation’. Here, even children cast votes for the TMVP, using ballot cards that were being distributed in front of the polling station. In Kathankudy, a largely Muslim town in Batticaloa, groups gathered outside polling stations and attempted to distribute false ID cards, so that people could vote.
With the national and international election monitors having departed and political parties back to ‘business’, violence was continuing as of deadline. Some of this is clearly election related. There have been attacks on the houses of candidates and their supporters, particularly in Batticaloa and Valaichennai. In others incidents, such as the shooting of two Sinhala policemen in Batticaloa town on 13 May, the reasons are unknown. There are now worries that these violations will simply become part of the wider human-rights crisis concentrated in the east and north.
While there is a serious need for the Election Commissioner to look into the violations in an independent manner, and conduct re-polling where necessary, the election results cannot be dismissed simply as the result of mass intimidation and fraud. It is conceivable that the political planks of the government and the TMVP did resonate with the electorate. For its part, the government initiated a number of development projects on the ground leading up to the elections, and may have convinced the constituents that supporting the ruling coalition would be the most effective method of securing funds to rebuild livelihoods and local economies. It is also possible that the government’s evident openness towards appointing a chief minister from any community made it easier to campaign among the minorities. On the security front, of course, the government is on less sure footing, at least with regards to the Tamil community.
Communalism and coexistence
The Eastern Province’s demography is a tight balance between the three main ethnic groups in Sri Lanka: the Sinhalese, here accounting for a quarter of the population; and the Tamils and Muslims, more or less equally making up the rest. That there is now a contest as to whether the Muslims have overtaken the Tamils as the majority community in the Eastern Province indicates the extreme level of ethnicisation in politics of the east.
It was clear at the outset that this election would be fought on communal lines. The election speeches of a number of the candidates directly addressed the fears of each ethnic group, rather than addressing the shared problems and hopes of the people. The two main alliances sought to present a multi-party grouping and pluralist candidate list, but the communal lines were already clearly drawn. The UNP-SLMC alliance put forward the SLMC leader, Rauf Hakeem, as it main candidate, and warned that electing a TMVP leader could threaten to split the country. But the alliance faced a major obstacle in encouraging Tamils to come forward to vote. Prominent Tamils were simply fearful of contesting against the TMVP.
The UPFA alliance seemed to be more representative, but there was a communal battle being fought within it. President Rajapakse reportedly offered the position of chief minister to both a Tamil – TMVP leader S Chandrakanthan (aka ‘Pillayan’) – and a Muslim, the SLMC candidate M L A M Hisbulla, who crossed over to the government side before the election. Later, the president changed his position to state that whoever won the most votes would secure the position. The final election results gave the Muslims an advantage of eight seats over the Tamils’ six within the governing alliance, while Pillayan secured more votes over Hisbulla. But realpolitik eventually won out, as the government is more reliant on the TMVP in the short term. On 16 May, Pillayan was appointed chief minister. Although Hisbulla threatened that, if he was not granted the position, all Muslim ministers within the cabinet would resign, he soon found himself isolated. Instead, he announced that two of his candidates and himself would sit on the council as independents, which effectively cuts away the government’s majority in the body. However, this will by no means be the end of this drama.
To look at this election solely through a communal lens, however, would miss out on some of the other critical aspects of the results. The UNP-SLMC candidate may have been a Muslim, but the party was also able to carry a significant Tamil vote, especially in Trincomalee. The UNP has a strong Tamil base, and it may have been helped by the call of the pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance to reject the ruling alliance. Furthermore, the fact that the elections saw an incredibly unusual alliance contesting together would not have been foreseen three years ago. Indeed, it seems that the political geography has dramatically shifted, and with that communal relations have also been re-aligned. However, this does not mean that the old communal divisions have evaporated, and it can be expected that issues such as land disputes, human-rights violations and communal clashes will continue. The only difference is the hope that, following elections, these will be addressed honestly by the political actors, rather than exploited for personal or party gain.
While the government has much to celebrate, for the TMVP the appointment of Pillayan as chief minister must come as a vindication of its efforts to create a political identity and help the government regain control of the east. This has not only been a remarkable journey for the party, but also for Pillayan himself, who started out as a child soldier with the LTTE. The TMVP can now use these wins as proof that it has a popular base, and that it, and not the LTTE or the pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance, truly represents the eastern Tamils.
It must be kept in mind that the TMVP contested the elections while still armed, and the party is accused of a wide range of human-rights violations. While there have been repeated calls by political parties and civil-society actors for the TMVP to disarm, both the group and the government have said that it cannot, given the threat posed by the LTTE. During campaigning, the TMVP took care to keep its arms hidden in its camps and offices, but everyone knew they were there. Although the government has for the last three years dismissed claims that it was assisting the TMVP, the electoral alliance has made obvious the relationship between the two.
This also places on the government the responsibility of ensuring that the transformation of the TMVP is not just about managing political units and development funds, but also about bringing about accountability and an end to rights violations. As to whether the government has the desire or will to ensure such a transformation is another question altogether. While there are rumours of tensions between sections of the security forces and the TMVP, the government remains reliant on the TMVP to maintain control of the east, and to help it in its battle against the LTTE in the north. Hence, the government has only a limited interest in the complete disarmament of the group, or in an end to its violations.
Ripples to the west, north and south
The May elections have significant implications beyond the east, of course. The possibility of snap country-wide polls looms, especially given the volatility of the political make-up of the governing alliance. For the moment, though, there is nothing quite like a victory. The elections have emboldened the Rajapakse government into thinking that it could face a general election. It knows that it would have a significant advantage among Sinhala voters; and, with the winning alliance with the TMVP, it could now carry a large percentage of the Tamil voters as well. For the president and his chief decision makers (most notably his two brothers, Defence Secretary Gotabaya and Special Presidential Advisor Basil), this was a triumph of war strategy and political consolidation. Hence, it is to be expected that the Rajapakse brothers will be able to exercise more power – all at the cost of the Parliament, which was suddenly prorogued prior to the elections.
In the east, the government’s new formula involves a mix of large-scale military operations to defeat the LTTE, initiating an ambitious development programme, and creating covert and public short-term alliances with various political actors (especially an alternative Tamil leadership). It also includes the particularly critical element of promising to create an empowered Provincial Council, which would address the political, economic and social interests of the communities in the east, especially the Tamils. If this latter promise works, the government will be able to make two arguments. First, that there is no need for peace talks with the LTTE, which calls itself the ‘sole representative’ of the Tamil people, to discuss the east; after all, the east has its own Tamil representative now. Second, that the issue of the merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces, which has been a critical demand of Tamil nationalists, is no longer relevant. Both of these issues eat into the position of the LTTE, which is increasingly finding itself isolated and fighting for survival in the slowly shrinking Wanni, the territory in the north under its control.
The sustainability of this formula, however, and above all the government’s commitment to its various aspects (especially the distribution of power), remains very much in question. The coming months will demonstrate the government’s political will to empower the council, or whether it will continue to retain powers and funds with Colombo’s representatives at the district level. For the opposition, a victory in the Eastern Provincial Council was crucial to give a boost to the UNP. Instead, the curse of defeat that hangs over the head of the current leadership seems to have been strengthened. For the SLMC, the results are indeed a shock. The continuing splintering of the party, coupled with the loss of key electorates, makes clear that the party risks losing its base. More worryingly, the election results, particularly the failure of the Muslim politicians to secure the chief-minister position despite having sent more members to the Council than did the Tamils, have created a deep disenchantment with democratic politics among Eastern Province Muslims.
What the election means to the people in the east is difficult to assess. Visiting Trincomalee following the election, one gets the impression that people want two basic things – peace and development. It has been 14 long years since the last Eastern Provincial Council was constituted, so many are unsure as to how far the new body could go to help achieve either one of these basic goals. There was certainly no post-election enthusiasm among the people with whom this writer met; the response to the election results varied from mild satisfaction to resignation and disinterest – and, in some cases, even outrage. The overall sense was that this was not just another election, but rather just another moment in the tragic two decades of conflict. Will the east see a rehabilitation of its economy, and a campaign of development and rebuilding of infrastructure? Will the east see an end to the continuing human-rights violations, killings, disappearances, abductions, assaults, rape and extortion? These will certainly be the real indicators of normalcy.
~ Mirak Raheem is a researcher with the Centre for Policy Alternatives in Colombo.