Jaffna: A former proxy to Sri Lanka`s defeated separatist Tamil Tiger rebels swept local council elections held in areas ravaged by the country`s 25-year civil war, officials said on Sunday, amid reports of intimidation and vote-buying.
The Elections Department said the Tamil National Alliance won 20 local councils out of the 25 it contested in the ethnic Tamil-majority north and east. President Mahinda Rajapaksa`s ruling United People`s Freedom Alliance coalition secured five councils in Saturday`s vote.
The election assumed unprecedented national significance, with the main two rivals both seeing it as a confidence vote.
The resounding victory consolidates the Tamil National Alliance`s status as an authentic representative of ethnic Tamils in negotiations with Rajapaksa`s ethnic majority Sinhalese-controlled government in sharing political power and post-war rehabilitation. The party had appealed to voters to give it a mandate to demand self-rule in the Tamil-majority areas.
Rajapaksa`s ruling party, for its part, had hoped a victory for its allies would blunt calls for an international war crimes investigation, mostly coming from the US and other Western nations, and vindicate the harsh tactics that killed thousands of Tamil civilians in the final months of the civil war, which ended in May 2009. It also could have allowed Rajapaksa to offer a less generous power-sharing deal, which his Tamil allies would most likely have accepted.
Sports Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage had said, while campaigning in the former Tamil Tiger rebels` northern base of Kilinochchi, that a victory for the governing party would "enable us to tell the world that we have won the confidence of the Tamil people after winning the war”. He said it would also silence a strong expatriate Tamil community lobbying for a war crimes investigation.
Rajapaksa had backed a Tamil paramilitary-cum political party.
On Saturday, election monitoring group Campaign for Free and Fair Elections said in a statement that uniformed men suspected to be members of the military, which still has a large presence in the former war zone, were forcibly collecting voting cards apparently to rig the vote. It reported that such incidents took place in 20 villages.
People who refused to give away their cards "were beaten up and threatened to cut their throats out”, the group said. It also observed men in uniform distributing food to people and asking them to vote for the ruling party.
In some areas, residents were paid 5 or 10 dollars in exchange for voting cards, it said.
Most people in the region are extremely poor after losing their families` breadwinners and belongings in the war.
Sri Lanka`s top officials, including Rajapaksa and Cabinet ministers, had campaigned for minority Tamil votes. They cut ribbons on projects for sports complexes, played cricket with local youths and promised to rebuild Tamil homes.
It was a rare effort for such a relatively minor ballot, but the governing coalition insists it is committed to ethnic reconciliation — though none of its touted programs toward healing has begun.