Campaigning ends Wednesday night in the first provincial elections to be held in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province since the end of the civil war in 2009, with ballot choices for the area’s 714,000 voters split along stark ethnic lines.
Up for grabs are 38 seats in the Northern Provincial Council, one of nine in the country. Hoping for a major win is the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), campaigning on a platform of more autonomy for the province. Against it are candidates from the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) of Sinhalese President Mahinda Rajapaksa, or from parties aligned with it. Voting takes place on Sept. 21.
“We want to address the people’s needs like jobs, houses and agriculture development,” said Sinnathurai Tavarajah, a chief ministerial candidate from the UPFA. Perhaps with an eye on winning votes, the government has, in the last fortnight, commissioned half a dozen new development projects in the province, including the 63km extension of the railway track to the key city of Kilinochchi.
The TNA, the party that has the largest representation in the national parliament from the Tamil-dominated north, says that what is important is power devolution to address long festering complaints by the Tamils of marginalization. Over 90% of the provincial population is Tamil.
“For the Tamils, the election is yet another opportunity to raise the call for more power sharing,” Abraham Sumanthiran, a TNA parliamentarian said.
A survey by the national rights advocacy body the Centre for Policy Alternatives found that jobs, housing, transport and education were the most important issues faced by the voters. But despite the UPFA’s emphasis on development over power sharing, 33% of those surveyed said they were likely to vote for the TNA, with only 21% choosing the UPFA.
Kumaravadivel Guruparan a law lecturer at the northern University of Jaffna says there is lingering resentment among voters over the massive military presence in the province and lack of government initiatives to address allegations of rights violations.
“It’s an opportunity to silently vent out their anger,” he said.