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SRI LANKA: Latest Elections Reinforce Status Quo

Amantha Perera

COLOMBO, Mar 30 2011 (IPS) - The latest elections in Sri Lanka serve as yet another reminder that despite all its follies, President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government is unshakable.

Incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa still remains the first choice for majority of Sri Lankan voters. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa still remains the first choice for majority of Sri Lankan voters. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

In the Mar. 17 elections for 234 local government bodies, the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) led by Rajapaksa secured control of 205 bodies outright and seven more through allies and coalition partners. The opposition United National Party (UNP) won nine while the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) won 12 councils, all of them from the north of the country.

National newspapers called it a hat trick of victories for Rajapaksa, counting his resounding wins at last year’s presidential and general elections.

Election monitors complained of violence and subtle manipulations of the state machinery to suit the government. But they admitted that evidence of vote rigging and levels of intimidation showed that their absence would not have changed the outcome of the election.

“The trend that favours the government is still there,” said Keerthi Thennakoon, the executive director of the election monitoring body Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CAFFE). “It is still a very popular government.”

The government has been riding on a crest of popularity, especially in areas dominated by the majority Sinhala community. The popularity is primarily based on the government successfully bringing a two and half decade old bloody ethnic war to an end in May 2009.

Opposition parties had wagered that popularity was eroding in the face of rising prices and accusations of nepotism within the government. It was a bet that they lost badly in most parts of the country, except for a few areas in the north and east.

The main opposition party, the UNP, has also been hobbling in the last year, wrecked by defections into government ranks and a long running leadership tussle. Ranil Wickremasinghe, the UNP leader for almost 17 years, recently faced off a stiff challenge from Sajith Premadasa, the son of the party’s last elected president, Ranasinghe Premadasa.

“It is a very feeble opposition we have right now,” Thennakoon said.

Government ministers have been much more gung-ho in their observations. “I don’t think there has ever been a government that is this popular, five years after it was first elected,” Minister Dullas Allahaperuma told national television soon after results were announced.

Monitors like Thennakoon however are wary that notwithstanding its immense popularity, the government and its allies were still indulging in efforts to rig the vote.

Thennakoon’s prime contention is that elections for 23 local government bodies were postponed – citing the holding of the on-going cricket world cup, which Sri Lanka is co-hosting with neighbours India and Bangladesh. The monitors say that in some areas where there have been postponements there are no matches played or any sight of international cricket. Elections in 65 other councils have been postponed due to court cases.

“Staggered elections, we have seen in the past, are a recipe for violence and intimidation,” Thennakoon said.

The People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL), another national polls monitoring body wrote to the government soon after the election, requesting it to hold polls for the remaining bodies on just one day. “Our experience has shown that if elections are held on a staggered basis, there is bound to be wastage of resources and external influence on the elections,” said Rohana Hettiarachchi, PAFFREL executive director.

Thennakoon told IPS that there were indications that subtle manipulations had taken place. He gave the example of Kathankuddi, a Muslim dominated constituency in the eastern Batticaloa District. The monitor said that voting was relatively low till around noon there. “After 2.30 pm, less than 90 minutes before polls closed, there was an unbelievable increase in voting,” he said. By the time polls closed, over 75 percent of the registered voters had voted in Kathankuddi – which the UPFA won.

In the Verugal electorate – in the eastern Trincomalee District – Thennakoon said similar patterns were observed, but this one was won by the TNA.

The TNA victories in the 12 local elections in the north and east were the only instances where the ruling UPFA’s otherwise unassailable supremacy was shattered. The victories came in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, home to much of the country’s 18 percent Tamil minority.

A TNA representative told IPS that the overwhelming vote was a stamp of acceptance by the population of TNA’s policies. The TNA has, however, long been considered a proxy of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) who were defeated by government forces in 2009. Since the war’s end it has been trying shed its links with the Tigers and assert it’s independence.

“The Tamil people have given us a mandate, they have shown that they back our policies,” said Appathurai Vinayagamurthi a TNA parliamentarian.

The TNA has been involved in discussions with the government while calling for greater political autonomy in the northern areas. It has also called for speedy rehabilitation of the war devastated region and for the government to release a full list of all those detained since the end of the war.

“We will continue the dialogue [with the government]. Now that the people have given their choice, we can’t let them down,” Vinayagamurthi said.

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