Sri Lanka has crossed an important milestone toward national reconciliation with the holding of elections to its Northern provincial council. Held more than four years after the war against the LTTE ended, and for the first time since the 1988 election for the short-lived North-Eastern Provincial Council, the September 21 vote gives the war-ravaged North its first-ever democratic political set up that will share governance with the centre. For the Tamil-majority province that was first under the thumb of the LTTE, then the military, and later run by a governor appointed by Colombo, this is the single biggest step towards a political settlement of the conflict. As expected, the Tamil National Alliance swept the election. It won 30 out of 38 seats in the council, leaving no doubt about who represents the Tamils. Sri Lanka’s ruling United Progressive Front Alliance, which fielded candidates of the Eelam People’s Democratic Party, won only seven seats despite having poured in huge amounts of money into infrastructure building in the North, evidence that the Tamils do not view this development agenda as their own. The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress won a single seat.
The huge turnout conveyed its own message about the importance of this election for the voters. The dire predictions that the Sri Lanka Army would use its overwhelming presence in the province to influence the outcome of the election proved incorrect; senior ministers in President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s cabinet have correctly described the election and the TNA win as a victory for democracy, and expressed their readiness to work with the new set-up in the North. The real test, though, begins now. The government must respect the TNA’s mandate. It should not resist the power-sharing with the Council that is provided under the 13th Amendment, and must begin to seriously consider progressive devolution on police and land. It would also do well to rethink its project on scrapping or diluting the constitutional provision for devolution. For its part, the TNA must avoid the urge to over-interpret its mandate. Steering clear of the extreme nationalist pronouncements by Tamil diaspora organisations, it has made a good start by stating that its victory represents the wish of the people for adequate self-rule within a united and undivided Sri Lanka. The massive preferential mandate for its chief ministerial candidate, C.V. Wigneswaran, who made clear his moderate views and desire for a constructive partnership with Colombo, is a clear sign that the people of Northern Sri Lanka are with him.