Calm has prevailed thus far as voters prepare for a provincial council poll on 21 September, the first to be held since a decades-long separatist conflict ended in Sri Lanka’s north.
Election monitors said on 19 September that the Northern Province was comparatively less violent than the North Western and Central Provinces, where elections will be held on the same day.
“We don’t expect violence or vote rigging to become rampant in the [Northern] province,” said Keerthi Tenakoon, executive director of the national election monitoring NGO, the Centre for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE). “It has remained relatively calm and free of major incidents.”
In four northern districts -Jaffna, Mannar, Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi - there will be 832 polling stations, where 906 candidates are standing for 38 seats. Some 719,000 people across the province are eligible to vote .
Tenakoon said despite the peaceful run-up to the election there were concerns over the increased military presence in the north, the rise of hate speech in the final days of the campaign, and a lack of transport for voters in the remote areas of the province.
“The all-pervasive military presence and their alleged surveillance of all political and social activism, unaffiliated to the government, have caused many election stakeholders to worry about how the security personnel would be used in elections,” CaFFE said in its final report on the approaching election.
“We have had to print 8,000 posters reaffirming it is a secret vote,” Tenakoon said.
The Department of Police said security will be boosted in the north, with at least 10,000 additional police officers on duty. The Election Commissioner’s Department has issued directives on not allowing unauthorized personnel inside polling stations.
Two main parties are contesting the election: the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), and the main opposition party, Tamil National Alliance (TNA). Both held massive rallies on 18 September, the final day of campaigning.
“This is an opportunity for the North[ern Province] to show that it can work together with the rest of the country and reap the benefits of post-war development,” said Sinnathurai Thavarajah, the UPFA’s leading candidate. The UPFA has campaigned on a pro-development platform in line with national government policies.
The TNA, the party with the largest parliamentary representation from the minority Tamil- dominated north, has centred its appeal on the devolution of more power and regional autonomy.
“The TNA’s role is to make sure that the government keeps its pledges on power devolution. We would seek the maximum extent of power devolution provided by the constitution to a TNA-led council,” said Abraham Sumanthiran, a TNA parliamentarian.
The Provincial Councils were set up in 1987 to devolve power to the country's nine provinces, especially the north and east, where there are sizable communities of Tamils and Muslims.
The Northern Council - in the heart of the former conflict zone, where the Tamil ethnic minority is concentrated and separatist rebels waged a bloody battle to carve out a homeland - is the only council that has not had elections since provincial boundaries were redrawn in 2006.
Since the government declared an end to fighting in May 2009, analysts and donors have highlighted the devolution of power as key to peacebuilding.
Earlier this year, Robert Blake, US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the U.S. was disappointed with the Sri Lankan government’s delay in holding regional elections in the Northern Province.
On the eve of the election, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he viewed these elections “as an important opportunity to foster political reconciliation and to build confidence between Sri Lankans after many years of conflict.”
A pre-election survey by the Colombo-based rights NGO, the Centre for Policy Alternatives, found that “job opportunities, improving education, housing, and improving roads and transport appear to be the most important issues for people and their community”.
Murugesu Rajgopal, a voter from Kilinochchi, told IRIN that while jobs are the most pressing need in the region, people also want to assert their political choice. “A council elected by the people gives us a sense of freedom.”