Voters in Sri Lanka’s north thronged polling stations on Saturday in an election that threatens to rekindle animosity between the government and ethnic minority Tamils,four years after the military crushed separatists and ended a 26-year war.
The provincial council election is the first in 25 years in the north,once the heartland of Tamil Tiger separatists. President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government is holding the poll after facing international pressure to restore democracy.
Defeat for Rajapaksa’s government would be largely symbolic. But victory for the main Tamil party,the Tamil National Alliance (TNA),could reignite calls for autonomy.
Long queues of patient voters formed in the morning at polling stations. Most had a holy ash mark on their foreheads,a sign they had attended prayers at Hindu temples.
Many voters called for restitution of land,the departure of the national army,accused of human rights abuses in the final stages of the war,and some even for a separate state.
Many were clearly keen to elect their own local leaders – 38 provincial councillors – for the first time in three decades. But some candidates complained of intimidation and irregularities.
“Tamils need independence. We need our lands back. We need the right to move freely,” said Gopalasuthanthiran Pushpavathi,a 51-year mother of four,after voting at a polling station behind the imposing Nallur Temple.
“I am happy that we have six votes in my family and we cast the votes with the hope of getting a separate province that is ruled by ourselves,” said Kandiah Thiyagarajah,63.
Residents complained of intimidation,saying the military visited their homes to tell them not to vote for the TNA. The party is the former political proxy of the defeated rebels,who launched the war for a separate state to end what Tamil activists saw as systematic discrimination by Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority.
The TNA’s main candidate,C.V. Wigneswaran,told the chief electoral officer that his sister had received a visit from military personnel at her home near Jaffna.
On Friday,a member of an election monitoring group was attacked,along with nine TNA supporters,by a group of gunmen said by the victims to have been wearing military uniforms.
Rajipaksa has a majority of more than two-thirds in parliament and controls the eight other provinces. He appears determined to win in the north,where campaign posters for the ruling coalition plastered the walls.
The president has faced international pressure to bring to book those accused of war crimes committed at the end of the war,and to boost reconciliation efforts.
His government has rejected accusations of rights abuses and Rajapaksa in July ordered an inquiry into mass disappearances,mostly of Tamils,at the end of the war.
The military rejects any suggestion of involvement by the security forces in violence of any sort.
Near many polling stations,posters with images of guns told voters to “think twice” and asked if they “want to go for another war” and whether they “really need to vote for TNA”.
On condition of anonymity,local election officials said some military officials had turned down repeated requests to remove campaign posters in line with election law.
A foreign observer said he saw widespread fear because of incidents of intimidation.
“The people are scared even to talk,” the observer told Reuters on condition of anonymity. “The fear psychosis is already created. The worry is if that will prompt them to decide not to vote.”