The provincial council system in Sri Lanka was established in 1987 consequent to the Indo-Lanka Accord concluded between Sri Lanka and India in the same year. One provincial council was set up for the Northern and Eastern Provinces, according to the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution of 1978. The amendment had its genesis in the Accord. Both the 13th Amendment and the provincial council system were conceived as a mechanism to resolve the ethnic conflict.
Elections were conducted to the first provincial council of the merged North-East provinces in 1988 and an administration was formed under the stewardship Varadaraja Perumal of the Eelam People’s Liberation Front (EPRLF), which collaborated closely with the Indian government and had the patronage of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF). This administration however did not last long as it was dissolved in 1990. Since Perumal’s administration depended on the Indian government and the IPKF for its survival, when the decision was made to withdraw the IPKF from Sri Lanka, Perumal had no option but to abandon the provincial council and move with the IPKF to India. Before deserting the council however, Perumal, without any reasonable basis, made a Unilateral Declaration of Independence. Angered by the UDI, President Ranasinghe Premadasa dissolved the North-East Provincial Council in 1990, never to be reconstituted again.
Meanwhile, the Janatha Vimukthi Peamuna (JVP), a nationalist Sinhala political party, which fought for a socialist state in Sri Lanka, from the inception, opposed the provincial council system and the 13th Amendment. Taking advantage of its alliance with the government in power, the JVP filed a case against the merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces in 2006 and gained a ruling in favor from the Supreme Court. Thus the temporarily merged North-East provinces were demerged in 2007.
Although the war between the state armed forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was ended in May 2009, the Eastern Province, a substantial portion of which was controlled by the LTTE, was brought under the sway of the government in 2008. The government wasted no time as it conducted the provincial council elections for the Eastern Province and formed the provincial administration in 2008. Emboldened by the military success in the Eastern Province the government pursued the same military strategy in the North as well. Crushing the LTTE leadership and the military machine, the government ended the war conclusively in May 2009.
The termination of the war and the LTTE led to the belief and the hope that the government, sooner than later, will conduct the provincial council elections in the North as well. The anticipated northern provincial council election was linked to ethnic reconciliation as especially the international community believed that the ballot and an opportunity for the Tamil people to govern their own affairs in the Northern Province will accelerate the reconciliation process. To date however, the Northern Province has been administered by Major General G.A.Chandrasiri, who was appointed by the central government. No election was conducted and about four years after the end of the war the Northern Provincial Council remains without a democratically elected government.
There were two fundamental reasons why the central government has shown no urgency in conducting the provincial council election to the Northern Province, (1) security, and (2) politics. Both these factors are linked closely to the history of elections conducted in the North in the post-war period. In all the elections conducted in the North during the past four year period including the local government election, presidential election and the parliamentary election, the Tamil voters in the North have overwhelmingly voted with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) or the parties endorsed by the TNA. Therefore, it is clear that if provincial council election is held under the prevailing political condition the TNA most probably will win the vote.
The government and section of the majority Sinhala community believe that this could pose serious challenges to the security of the province. The TNA was supportive of the LTTE policies, politics and strategies and operated as a surrogate of the LTTE. The TNA was also committed to the separate state for the Tamils in the North-East provinces. This makes the Sinhalese extremely suspicious of the TNA’s intensions. Although the TNA dropped its demand for a separate state and endorsed a federalist solution to the ethnic conflict in its 2010 parliamentary election manifesto, the Sinhalese refused to trust the TNA. Therefore, the government believes that, if given an opportunity, the TNA will use the provincial powers to promote separatism. This is one reason why the Northern provincial council elections were not conducted thus far. A powerful section within the of the government believes that it is important to keep the North under military control as long as possible to preempt another Tamil campaign for a separate state for the Tamils in the North.
Politically, the government in the past has demonstrated total commitment to preserving all provincial councils under the control of the ruling political coalition, the United People’s Freedom Alliance. The present government carried out a determined campaign during all previous provincial government elections conducted during its tenure in office and made sure the opposition parties have absolutely no chance of forming a government in these councils. Currently, all provincial councils are controlled by the People’s Alliance government. This will however, not be easy in the North, where the TNA will have a fair chance of winning and forming the government.
The government did not hesitate to hold the provincial council election in the East immediately because the political environment that prevailed in the province following the ousting of the LTTE was different. Former LTTE leaders Vinayagamurthi Muralitharan and Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan hailed from the Eastern Province. They defected from the LTTE in 2004 and collaborated with the armed forces contributing to the eventual military debacle of the LTTE. Politically, they aligned with the ruling party and continue to work with the government. Also, the rift between the Muralitharan faction of the LTTE and the mainstream group caused tension between the Northern and Eastern Tamils. Taking advantage of the political milieu the government conducted the Eastern Provincial Council election in 2008 and formed the administration. Chandrakanthan became the Chief Minister of the Eastern Province Provincial council.
Nevertheless, under pressure from the international community, caused mainly by the resolution adopted in the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in March 2012 on Sri Lanka, President Mahinda Rajapaksa announced that the provincial council election in the North will be conducted in September 2013. Sponsors of the resolution especially the United States were advocating an international investigation on the human rights violations allegedly committed during the last phase of the war. Surprisingly, India, which was a staunch ally of the Rajapaksa government, voted for the resolution. The announcement of the election was made to address the international concerns expressed through the resolution. President Rajapaksa in an interview granted to The Hindu newspaper of India declared “We want to hold elections in September 2013.”
This was obviously one of the major demands of the international community. Without wasting too much time the international community welcomed the announcement. In an effort also to trap the Sri Lankan government in its own pronouncement the 2013 UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka, which was also sponsored by the US, welcomed “the announcement by the Government of Sri Lanka to hold elections to the Provincial Council in the Northern Province in September 2013.” It seems that the aim has been achieved as the Sri Lankan government seemed to have no option but to hold the election this year. Last week President Rajapaksa announced that he is in the process of consulting his advisors on the date to have the election.
However, holding the election as promised is not easy. First, it seems that in a free and fair contest the TNA will win the election, which still has the potential to discourage the government. Second, there may be resistance from the security apparatus to handing over administration to a Tamil led government, which will be seen as detrimental to the long term security schemes in the North. Third, nationalist Sinhala groups are already up in arms against the proposed vote in the North.
The Bodu Bala Sena and Ravana Blaya two of the emerging vocal Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist entities have already declared their reservation of holding election in the North coupled with threats of public agitation if and when the election becomes a reality. On May 1st in one of the May Day rallies, Wimal Weerawansa, the Minister for Housing and Common Amenities in the present government declared that he will resign his position in the cabinet if the government decided to go ahead with the Northern polls. In a recent newspaper interview, Patali Champika Ranawaka, the Minister of Technology, Research and Atomic Energy, reiterated that his party was opposed to the proposed election. What is interesting is that all these anti-election groups are in one way or the other close to the government, which ignited the belief among some commentators that the government was behind the emerging movement and may use it as an excuse not to hold the promised election.
This perception has created doubts in the minds of the people of the North that it is unlikely that the government will in the near future hold the proposed election. Others argue that the government may, in order to defeat the challenges created by the promised election, try to scrap the 13th Amendment altogether. Scrapping of the 13th Amendemnt may also reinforce the popularity of the government, especially the President among the Sinhala people in the South. Therefore, the people in the North and the international community, albeit with some doubts, are waiting eagerly to the official announcement of the election, which may or may not come.
By S. I. Keethaponcalan: The author is Chair of the Conflict Resolution Department, Salisbury University, Maryland.