In remarks to this newspaper, President Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka has said the elections to the country’s Northern provincial council will be held only in September 2013 because the government needs time to update 30-year-old electoral rolls. The explanation for the delay is intriguing. Three other elections have been held since the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 2009 — presidential elections in January 2010; parliamentary elections in April 2010; and elections to local bodies in 2011. Northern province voters participated in all three. The old voters’ list was apparently not a problem then; nor was the rehabilitation and resettlement process, the other reason Mr. Rajapaksa has given for putting off elections. The Tamil National Alliance, which roundly won the local bodies elections, suspects the delay has to do with fears that it might sweep the provincial council elections too. There is no question about the need for a political process in the Northern province, comprising five districts that bore the maximum impact of the conflict — Jaffna, Killinochchi, Mullaitivu, Vavuniya and Mannar. A provincial government headed by a chief minister has some powers devolved to it under the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution. Irrespective of who wins, the arrangement could assist in restoring normality to the region by giving it a civilian, democratic political face.
In fact, the Northern provincial council elections should have been held soon after the war ended to signal the government’s seriousness about finding a political solution to secure the peace. Instead, more than three years later, the North is still in the grip of the military, and going by Mr. Rajapaksa’s statement, another 14 months must pass before it can elect its provincial government. Meanwhile, three other councils, including in the Eastern province, whose terms were to end only in 2013, have been dissolved ahead of time, and fresh elections scheduled for September this year. If, as President Rajapaksa has said, elections in the Northern province are to be held next year, he must start thinking about scaling down troops in the region in the interests of a free and fair election. Every nation has a right to decide its security needs. Even assuming Sri Lanka is right in its perception of an ominous comeback plan by the LTTE, the troops to people ratio in Tamil areas is high, compared to say, in Jammu & Kashmir, where a majority of the security forces are deployed against an external threat. Given its numbers in northern Sri Lanka, it is no surprise that the military is seen as overly intrusive in daily life. In order to be taken seriously, the Sri Lankan President also needs to make a formal announcement soon about his intended schedule for the election.