A proxy to Sri Lanka's now-defunct separatist Tamil Tiger rebels swept local council elections held in areas ravaged by the country's 25-year civil war, officials said Sunday, amid reports of intimidation and vote-buying.
The Tamil National Alliance won 20 local councils out of the 25 it contested in the ethnic Tamil-majority north and east, the Elections Department said. 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 postwar 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 U.S. 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.
Rajapaksa already has rejected a demand by the Tamil National Alliance to allow Tamil control over local police and land.
"It clearly shows the Tamil people's stand on political and development matters," TNA lawmaker Suresh Premachandran said of the election result.
He said the Tamils had given his party a mandate for a "dignified political settlement" and urged the government to respect the verdict.
Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella said that despite failing to win control of many councils in the north, the ruling party had taken a "stride forward" by getting many members elected.
"This is part of the peace dividend and participatory democracy that has manifested," he said of the vote.
Sports Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage had told The Associated Press earlier, 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.
The results in Tamil areas were a sharp contrast to elections in ethnic Sinhalese-majority regions also held Saturday, with the United People's Freedom Alliance sweeping all 40 councils. That result highlights Rajapaksa's immense popularity among Sinhalese more than two years after leading the war victory, and also shows the ethnic polarization that still exists.
Election monitoring group Campaign for Free and Fair Elections said in a statement Saturday 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.
Rambukwella denied that the army was used for vote-buying, but said any credible complaints would be investigated.
Top Sri Lankan 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.
Jehan Perera, an analyst with local think tank National Peace Council, said the election result shows that the Tamils have chosen "rights above economic benefit."
"There is a need for the government to work out a political solution to the conflict by negotiating with the TNA in particular, without which the north-south divide will plague the country," he said.