Very low voter turn-out among IDPs

Voters in conflict-affected northern Sri Lanka failed to turn out in great numbers for parliamentary elections last week, with many citing dissatisfaction with their own plight since returning to their homes after months of displacement.

"Why should we vote?” asked Koneshwaran Bala, a recent Tamil returnee to the town Oddusudan in Mullaitivu District.

“As a community, we do not have leaders. There is no leader at the national level that talks about our sad state. I am not bothered at all to vote,” the 57-year-old said.

"I do not have a house with a proper roof to sleep under. There were promises given by various parties for months. I do not believe in them. I have no trust in what others can do for me - especially the government. I will survive on my own,” added 48-year-old Arul Elangovan, also from Oddusudan.

About 55 percent of Sri Lanka’s 14 million registered voters cast their ballots on 8 April in the first parliamentary elections since the government declared victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who had fought for a Tamil homeland for over two decades.

Voter turnout in Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi districts - comprised largely of resettled internally displaced persons (IDPs) - fell below 17 percent, the Sri Lankan Election Commission reported.

Of 68,729 registered voters in Mullaitivu, just 11,362 (16.53 percent) cast their votes, while in Kilinochchi, 11,019 of 90,811 registered voters, (12.13 percent) went to the polls.


Photo: Udara Soysa/IRIN
A road outside Oddusudan. Lack of transport prevented many from voting

But dissatisfaction was just part of the problem. In addition to outdated voter registration lists, many were denied their right to vote altogether, election observers said.

“There was more than one reason,” Keerthi Thenakoon, executive director of the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE), a national election monitoring body, told IRIN.

Many IDPs still in camps in the north were told they did not have the right documentation for voting. Moreover, election officials were unable to give the IDPs clear directions about what to do when their camp identification was not accepted, said Thenakoon.

As a result, there was mass confusion among IDP voters about where they could vote - the IDP camp, newly-resettled areas or their district of residence, the Colombo-based group said.

Compounding matters, after 2.30pm on the day, there was no transport provided to voters, making it impossible for many to reach polling stations.

Call for reconciliation

According to preliminary figures released by election officials, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) won 117 of the parliament’s 225 seats; the final result is still pending.

On 10 April, the US embassy in Colombo congratulated Rajapaksa - who was re-elected in a poll in January - and the UPFA for “their historic victory” in the first nationwide parliamentary election in decades.

“This victory, coupled with the President's win in January’s contest, provides a mandate to move forward on the important issues the President discussed during the campaign, such as national and ethnic reconciliation, decentralizing power, economic development, and securing human rights," said a statement from the embassy.

On 10 April, the Election Commission announced that re-polling in some booths for the Trincomalee and Kandy parliamentary constituencies will be held on 20 April, following complaints of election malpractices.

Results for the seats will be announced only after a re-polling is held.

According to the UN, of the more than 280,000 IDPs displaced by the conflict, over 104,000 have since returned to their places of origin, while another 82,000 are staying with host families.

The rest continue to live in IDP camps, the vast majority at Menik Farm in the northern Sri Lankan district of Vavuniya.