Come Saturday, over seven lakh people in Sri Lanka’s Tamil-majority north will finally get to vote in a long awaited election.

Still recovering from the aftermath of a three decade-long conflict that ended in 2009, the region is to hold the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) elections on September 21.

This is the first time since 1988 that provincial council elections are being held in Northern Sri Lanka.

Campaigning has largely been muted — public meetings are allowed, but door-to-door campaign by candidates is banned by the election commission here — and the town has remained fairly quiet.

However, for people of the Northern Province, who hope the council can make a difference in their lives, this election is crucial.

Considering how much there is to be done in this part of the country, the provincial council deserves a chance, says T. Sonia, (26) a sociology graduate from Achchuveli, about half an hour’s drive from Jaffna town. “We lost everything during the 30-year war. Now, when we try and return to leading normal lives, many are facing huge challenges, such as finding means of livelihood,” she says.

Along with the Northern Province Sri Lanka’s Central and North Western provinces will also go to poll on September 21.

The spotlight, however, is on the north as it is witnessing its first ever provincial council election. The councils with specified powers were created as a result of the 13th Amendment, an outcome of the Indo-Lanka Accord, 1987.

In the four years since the war ended, people have encountered a range of issues such as heavy militarisation; high surveillance by the military intelligence; an absence of employment opportunities; and complaints related to disappearances. People have voiced their concerns at every available opportunity on these issues, for instance during the recent visit of United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay.

Often in denial, the Sri Lankan government has instead stressed its investment in infrastructure — visible in the form of newly-laid roads, pavements, transport connectivity, functional schools and hospitals.

The main contest is between the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) — which has fielded retired Supreme Court Judge C. V. Wigneswaran as its chief ministerial candidate — and the Sri Lankan government, represented by its two key candidates S. Thavarajah of the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP); and Angajan Ramanathan, of the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP).

Though EPDP and SLFP have pegged their campaign on development undertaken,many locals don’t consider it inclusive.

Self-determination

The TNA, widely expected to win, speaks of Tamils’ right to self-determination in its manifesto — which drew strong criticism from some who sensed a call for separatism.

However, TNA parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran, according to local reports, has clarified that the manifesto speaks of right to self-determination only through a federal structure within a united Sri Lanka. Further, Mr. Wigneswaran’s reported glorification of LTTE leader V. Prabhakaran as Maveeran at an election meeting in Valvettithurai, evoked much shock and criticism not only in the Sinhala south but also among many Tamils critical of the LTTE.

Government media pounced on the reported remarks of Mr. Wigneswaran and the English media played it up.

Saturday’s polls would also mark the beginning of a new challenge, according to a senior TNA politician who did not wish to be named. Citing the powers vested with the governor of the province, who is appointed by the President, he says should the TNA win, it would be a real challenge to run the Council. Reflecting on what he believes is an ironic situation, he says: “Well, we may have an opportunity to demonstrate what a provincial council can do. But I am afraid it will be more of an opportunity to demonstrate what a provincial council can’t do in given the current context.”