By Shihar Aneez
KILINOCHCHI, Sri Lanka (Reuters) - Tamils in Sri Lanka's war-weary north elected the political proxy of the defeated Tamil Tiger rebels in local polls held for the first time since at least 1999, drubbing President Mahinda Rajapaksa's ruling party, election results showed Sunday.
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), a party formerly controlled by the separatist Tigers, won 15 of 20 local councils in the old northern war zone and three of six in the east, which was Tiger territory until the military ran them out in 2007.
"This means Tamils like freedom from a military regime and protecting their socio-cultural identity with a political solution versus the government's development plans," said Kusal Perera, an analyst and frequent government critic at the Center for Social Democracy.
Despite some intimidation and vote-buying, turnout came in above 50 percent amid skepticism by the mostly Tamil electorate of any kind of post-war political change. Poll monitors said the violence and election malfeasance did not have much effect.
Healing after a 25-year war between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that ended in May 2009, Tamils in the north before the polls said they felt there was little to gain from voting.
Rajapaksa campaigned aggressively, promising more development to spur post-war economic revival, an attempt to win the hearts and votes of the Tamils who still have deep distrust for his government, which like all others since independence in 1948 is dominated by the Sinhalese ethnic majority.
The government, despite the defeat, said it was happy to have brought democracy to the north.
"The people had used ballots instead of bullets," Health Minister Maithripala Sirisena told local radio Sunday. "That's a great victory for us."
In Jaffna, on the northernmost tip of Sri Lanka, it was the first election for local councils in 12 years. In the Tigers' self-declared capital of Kilinochchi and Mullaittivu, where they met their final defeat, they were the first local government polls in 29 years.
Devolution of power from the center was a main demand of LTTE, and although it won a constitutional concession for that in 1989, the changes have never been enacted. Rajapaksa has been slow to meet any Tamil political demands.
The government won only three councils in Jaffna, where residents and poll monitors complained of election malpractice and intimidation by the pro-government Tamil party Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP).
Some people in Kilinochchi and Jaffna told Reuters they voted for Tamil parties mainly because of the intimidation by some pro-government parties with the help of military.
"Had the government controlled the violence and intimidation, we would have voted for them due to ongoing development work," said a resident in Kilinochchi, who asked not to be identified out of fear of reprisals.
(Editing by Bryson Hull / Daniel Magnowski)