Foreign observers held talks with officials and candidates in Sri Lanka’s former war zone Wednesday to ensure the region’s first elections to choose a semi-autonomous council pass off peacefully, officials said.
Kenya’s former vice president Stephen Kalonzo Musyoka, who is heading a four-member Commonwealth mission, urged all sides to ensure the landmark elections take place without incident as his delegation entered a series of meetings in the town of Jaffna, the Commonwealth secretariat said.
“I call on all stakeholders to play their part to ensure that the remaining days of the electoral process promote confidence in voters to freely exercise their franchise,” Musyoka said in a statement issued by the Commonwealth.
Sri Lanka’s Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya said a 20-member South Asian team, including monitors from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal and Pakistan were already observing the electoral process.
They have also spread out to two other provinces where similar council elections are being held on Saturday while all campaigning must be concluded by Wednesday night.
However, the main focus is on the Northern Council based in Jaffna, 400 kilometres (250 miles) north of Colombo. The country’s biggest Tamil party, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), is widely expected to do well.
The TNA has accused the military of maintaining a large presence in the former war zone, four years after ending the island’s drawn-out Tamil separatist war.
The TNA is accusing the military of intimidating voters, a charge already denied by the authorities.
Provincial councils have limited autonomy over administrative matters but do not have powers over law and order nor can they control state land, two key demands of minority Tamils in the majority Sinhalese nation of 20 million.
Some 906 candidates are contesting the 36 seats in the Northern council which is going to the polls for the first time since Sri Lanka adopted a de facto federal form of government in 1987.
A total of 714,000 people are eligible to vote in the northern province where thousands of people are still missing four years the ethnic war. Many more have also lost their homes damaged or destroyed during fighting.
The guerrillas had fought for outright independence for Tamils, but the TNA has said it will lead a political campaign for greater autonomy within a united Sri Lanka.