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OPINION / ANALYSIS

Northern Provincial Council Elections in Sri Lanka: What Next?

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SMRUTI S. PATTANAIK
October 15, 2013

After 25 years, for the first time, election was held to the demerged Northern Provincial Council (NPC) on September 21. Though the victory of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) with a thumping two-third majority was predicted, some thought the development route to ethnic reconciliation as relentlessly articulated and pursued by the Rajapakse government, would give it some electoral benefits. It managed to win only 7 seats (18.38 per cent of the votes) in the 38-member council. The TNA won 30 seats (including two bonus seats, 78.48 per cent of the votes) and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) that decided to fight a lone battle won one seat with 1.50 per cent of the votes. At a press conference soon after the election results were declared on September 22, the TNA made it clear that it will look forward “to be able to fulfill their legitimate political, economic, social and cultural aspirations” within the framework of a united and undivided Sri Lanka.
 
The TNA manifesto has been a major controversial issue for the majority Sinhalese who are trying to read beyond what is printed. The assertion of ‘internal self-determination’ within a unitary framework or ‘shared sovereignty’ created much debate in the media and drew the attentions of radical parties like the JVP and JHU. This led to the filing of a petition in the Supreme Court by the so-called ‘patriotic organisation’ which appealed that the TNA manifesto violates the Constitution of the country. Coupled with this, speeches of the Chief Ministerial candidate describing Prabhakaran as ‘mahaveera’ (hero) and another leader’s assertion that they will take up arms again if they are denied their rights, also did not allay the trust deficit between the government and the TNA. There has been a sustained campaign since the end of the war to portray the TNA as a torchbearer of the LTTE, a mouth piece of the Diaspora and other foreign patrons. Soon after the TNA nominated its Chief Ministerial candidate, media reports appeared that alleged that retired Justice C.V. Wighneswaran, is India’s chosen candidate, leading to a strong denial by the Indian High Commission in Colombo. However, such delegitimisation of the TNA did not stop.
 
On the eve of the elections, posters written in Tamil appeared pasted on the walls in Jaffna: “think twice before you vote, are you ready to go for another war? Is your vote for TNA?” There were posters against Wighneswaran advising him to rest, as he is old. Another poster appeared with a wrong ballot number of the Chief Ministerial candidate, and on election day, a fake copy of Uthayan newspaper appeared with news that Wighneswaran and Ananthi Sasitharan had crossed over to the government side. Moreover, there is a deliberate attempt to paint the TNA as a successor of the LTTE. Though elections remain largely free of violence, tactics of intimidation and ‘psychological pressure’ are apparently used to pressurize the voters.
 
All these put a question mark on the government’s initiative at reconciliation and providing political space to the Tamil minority. Large-scale infrastructural  development, and the road network has changed the face of the Northern Province but issues of land dispute, complaints about the Army occupying land and daily monitoring by the Army and intelligence, remain major stumbling blocks on the path of reconciliation. Especially, in the war-torn area degeneration of societal norms is apparent. There are instances of child abuse and rape as many families are headed by women and cannot pay attention to their children, as they go out to work to support their families. Incidents of prostitution have increased as a means of survival. The immediate need for the vast majority of the destitute in the war-torn area is employment, housing and a normal life. The Army is involved in developmental work but many who aspire for peaceful life do not want the Army’s involvement in their day-to-day civil life. A Presidential Task Force for Resettlement, Development and Security in the Northern Province (PTF) constituted after the end of war, has seven representatives from the security forces amongst its nineteen members but it does not have a single Tamil. This leads many in the north to believe that there is increasing militarization of civilian life.
 
 
The TNA government will have three immediate issues at hand. The first is providing employment or means of livelihood to the destitute affected by war; second, resettlement of people on their ancestral lands and the question of demilitarisation and third, working for more meaningful devolution to meet the longstanding political aspirations. Resources to implement the first two issues would be important. Just before the election the Minister for Economic Development, Basil Rajapakse announced that he would no longer engage in the Uthuru Wasanthaya programme (Northern spring), which is part of development and reconstruction activities and handing over to the elected representatives of the newly constituted NPC. The success of this transfer would depend on the  extent that the Rajapakse regime would go to provide resources for the NPC to accomplish this task. The United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) government would not like the TNA to gain more popularity. It is likely that resources for many of the developmental projects may not be available to the provincial government. The involvement of the Diaspora in developmental activities will have to meet stringent conditions. The Diaspora perhaps may not be welcomed by the government if their political views run contradictory to those of the government. Making land available for such investment would also be a problem and engaging through NGOs is equally difficult. Securitisation of political, economic and social issues concerning the North would not allow any such engagement.
 
While devolution remains a major issue, it is unlikely to be granted given the extreme Sinhala nationalism that has dominated the devolution discourse. Already, the Supreme Court under the acting Chief Justice Mohan Peiris, has given a judgment saying that land is a Central subject providing further legal sanction to the Rajapakse regime’s clear unwillingness to implement the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. This verdict, soon after the elections, signals the likely course of future developments. In such a scenario, it appears that the government will increasingly seek the legal route to undo the 13th Amendment, as the Parliament route through the Select Committee has remained defunct. Many believe that the government is waiting for the conclusion of CHOGM to strike harder.
 
It would be imperative in the greater interest of the people of the North for the UPFA and TNA to work and address the question of devolution through negotiation. TNA’s electoral victory attests that the larger question of political aspirations of Tamil remains a core issue. The TNA has made it clear that it would like to address this issue within the unitary framework of the Sri Lankan State. This provides an opportunity for the UPFA government to take into cognizance the window of opportunity that the first NPC election provides to address the issue. It is President Rajapakse who has the ability and mandate to bridge the trust deficit between the North and the South and work towards a workable political solution that is acceptable to the North for durable peace. But, will he? The fundamental doubt remains even though he is the only person who can deliver.
 
 [Courtesy: South Asia Conflict Monitor, Vol. 1 (5), October 2013]

Smruti S. Pattanaik is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. Currently on deputation as Visiting Professor on ICCR's India Chair at Centre for Contemporary Indian Studies, University of Colombo.