On September 21, Sri Lanka will hold its first Northern Provincial Council elections in a quarter century, with about 714,488 people registered to vote. This has generated considerable interest all over the world, particularly in the Tamil-speaking population, and is providing a critical chance for reconciliation in post-war Sri Lanka.
Sri Lankan President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, himself has appealed to the Tamil-dominated Northern province to participate in the democratic process and elect their own representatives. "There were presidential and parliamentary elections but this is the first free election in 30 years afforded to northern people to express themselves in a vote. This is a clear indication of new freedom they are currently enjoying,” he recently told the local media.
Analysts have also argued that Northern Province elections will be a major step in bringing Sri Lankan Tamils back to the mainstream in post-conflict period. This province has a peculiar place in Sri Lanka's history and politics, as it is geographically an area where Tamils are concentrated and are in majority, in an otherwise Sinhalese-majority country.
Along with the Northern Province, two other provinces, Central and North Western, comprising of 10 districts- Kandy, Matale, Nuwara Eliya, Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mannar, Vavunia, Mulative, Kurenegala and Puttalam, will also go to polls on the same day.
History of the provincial councils
Sri Lanka has nine provincial councils in all, which were created when Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi brokered the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord in 1987, with Sri Lankan President J R Jayawardene. Under the Accord, Sri Lankan Government agreed to devolution of powers to provinces, passed the 13th Amendment Act to the country's constitution, and established provincial councils enacting the Provincial Councils Act.
But soon after, the elections to the Northern province was suspended due to resumption of war between Sri Lankan security forces and Tamil militant groups – mainly the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which went on for over two-decades and ended in 2009 with the death of LTTE's chief Prabhakaran.
Major political players
The United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) of President Rajapaksa, Tamil National Alliance (TNA) led by lawyer R Sampanthan and United National Party (UNP) under the leadership of former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe, are the major political players in the upcoming elections. While the UPFA and UNP are contesting in all 10 districts, TNA has put up its candidates in only five districts of the Northern Province.
As expected, pre-poll surveys have given TNA an edge over UPFA in the Northern Province, while UPFA is expected to win in the Central and North Western provinces.
Major issues in the Northern Province
Issues of land rights, increased militarisation, and the long-term process of reconciliation and rehabilitation have dominated the election campaign. The challenge for any incumbent government will be to address these local issues as well as garner support for devolution of police and land powers at the provincial level, as mandated by the 13th Amendment.
The international community is keenly watching the island nation, with many organisations sending their observers to ensure free and fair elections. More so, as there have been allegations of gross human rights violation by the Sri Lankan Government headed by Rajapaksa, in a bid to end the 26-year-long civil war.
The Commonwealth Secretariat, which is a voluntary association of 54 independent countries, will deploy a Commonwealth Observation Mission in the northern province to “observe and consider all aspects of the electoral process and assess compliance with the standards for democratic elections to which Sri Lanka has committed itself”. The chairman of the Forum of South Asian Elections Management Bodies has also nominated a team of 20 from Afganistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, and Pakistan, to meet the representatives of contesting political parties in the Northern Province.
On its part, Rajapaksa's ruling coalition, which is banking on initiatives of rebuilding the devastated infrastructure to entice the voters, has promised full cooperation and access to the international observers.