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Local Elections in Post-war Jaffna

The Mahinda Rajapaksa regime's approach to the Tamil community in the North is not one that can heal the wounds of a devastated people. The people responded in the ballots for elections to local bodies in the Northern Province with dignity. If there is a larger lesson to be learned from the elections, it is that there are limits to the political muscle of party machines and patronage.


Local Elections in Post-war Jaffna However, the military presence continues and is visible at every street corner add
ing to the climate of fear. Little has also
changed in the superficial engagement on
Ahilan Kadirgamar post-war issues in the public sphere charac-

The Mahinda Rajapaksa regime’s approach to the Tamil community in the North is not one that can heal the wounds of a devastated people. The people responded in the ballots for elections to local bodies in the Northern Province with dignity. If there is a larger lesson to be learned from the elections, it is that there are limits to the political muscle of party machines and patronage.

Ahilan Kadirgamar (ahilan.kadirgamar@ is a spokesperson for the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum.

Economic & Political Weekly

august 6, 2011

he month of July was characterised by considerable anxiety and excitement in the Jaffna district of the Northern Province in Sri Lanka. While there has been very little movement on the political process to address a constitutional settlement, the two years following the end of the war has seen major national and local elections.

Excluding the Northern Province, where elections have not been held over the last two decades, the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) is in power in all the other eight provinces of the country. This followed elections in 2008 and 2009. It was in this context that local government elections were held throughout the country in March this year, where again the UPFA swept the polls. However, due to a court challenge elections were scheduled in late July in 65 local authorities including 20 in the Northern Province. Of these 16 local authorities in Jaffna and another four local authorities in war-torn Vanni unexpectedly gained much attention as a test of Tamil politics two years after the end of the war.

In this context, some aspects of the social, economic and political contours of post-war Jaffna are now more apparent. The resettlement and the return of many of the displaced have been gradual; the process continues to have many economic challenges including issues related to land. Economic activity has accelerated particularly in agriculture and fisheries, but also in trade with the expansion of markets after the A-9 road opened 20 months ago. Labour is heavily in demand with increasing wages as sustained economic activity has created serious shortages in skilled labour for construction and agriculture. While land prices sky-rocketed last year in a post-war bubble, prices are now coming down and stabilising in many areas after improved access to services and quicker transport to Jaffna town. Indeed, infrastructure, particularly roads, electricity, banking and telecommunications are expanding, with a visible increase in the number of vehicles and mobile phones.

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terised by the rhetoric and posturing of the local Tamil newspapers. Indeed, this lack of a larger political vision is very much linked to the absence of a serious post-war political pro cess to look into the past and prepare for the future. Nevertheless, in private discussions at least, a certain self-criticism within Jaffna society on its lack of initiative and economic dependency on the diaspora, and the absence of visionary leadership in society, are being articulated. Thus the local government elections provided an opportunity for Jaffna society to work through some of these issues and contradictions at the local level and begin a broad-based process of democratising society.


As with so many other opportunities in the post-war context, the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime decided to muscle its way into a disruptive position. Elections about local government in Jaffna were turned into a national circus as several ministers and the president decided to take Jaffna by storm. Patronage and electioneering which are the hallmarks of the Rajapaksa regime were pushed to the limit with massive propaganda campaigns and handouts to potential supporters. There were many farcical openings and re-openings of small development projects in addition to further promises of “development”. The rationale of the regime might have been to counter the recent international fallout of the UN Panel Report and the Channel 4 documentary, but little did it pause to consider that this was a population that was intimately connected with the war. These were in fact the same people who were struggling and coming to terms with the tragic narratives of the war. The insensitivity and indignity of being bussed to meetings and preached to by southern politicians who had little to do with the ground realities of a local election were bound to backfire. Nevertheless, the Rajapaksa regime set the terms of the election as one about economic development in opposition to a political settlement with war-time accountability. The regime perhaps thought that the recent diplomatic


challenges of the western powers and India could be deflected through a victory in the local government elections in the North.

Now the concerns of the local communities in the North are not monolithic. Each constituency has its own set of issues which should shape local representation. The newly resettled, not only in the neighbouring districts of Killinochi and Mullaitivu, but also in Vadamarachi East in Jaffna and the formerly High Security Zone parts of Valikamam North in Jaffna, have their urgent and material needs. The people in the islands off Jaffna have particular concerns of rejuvenating their economic life after bouts of displacement and migration. The fishing communities have been engaged in issues of poaching and the need for fishing infrastructure, and the smallholding farmers reviving paddy and cash crops have different needs in each location. Many of the villages are geographically divided along caste lines, with different priorities of access to services such as electricity to that of renovating small tanks, with the problem of uneven development at the local level. These disparities in the social and economic landscape should have provided for a diverse contest not only between the Eelam Peoples’ Democratic Party (epdp) and the Tamil National Alliance (tna) in collaboration with the Tamil United Liberation Front (tulf), but also a range of other smaller parties and independent candidates. That is, provided the UPFA and its party machine did not disrupt the local political space.

The Rajapaksa regime, in a departure from previous regimes, has placed excessive confidence in its ability to co-opt the locals. Its quest for centralised power extends not only in rejecting meaningful devolution to the provinces, but also in extending its tentacles into local government. Such centralisation of state power also characterises the militarisation of civil administration. Indeed, that is the significance of the increasing number of former military personnel in civil administration as with the Northern Province governor or the presidential task force or the absorption of the urban development authority into the defence ministry.

Given these political terms on which the Rajapaksa regime pushed the local government elections in the North, the UPFA coalition suffered a resounding and deserving defeat. The UPFA while having won 45 of the 65 local authorities contested through the country in July managed to only win 3 of the 20 local authorities in the North. The mood on election day in Jaffna was one of defiance and protest. People went in much larger numbers than in recent elections and they openly spoke of the need to defeat the UPFA. While analyses in the media have captured the significance of this election, there are a few misconceptions.

In claiming that the TNA’s triumph is a victory for advocating political settlement over that of development, some analyses have fallen for the Rajapaksa regime’s false dichotomy between economic development and a political settlement. The issue is not one or the other, but the manner in which both are intrinsically tied to each other. During the campaign some of the TNA politicians pointed out that the problem was one of excluding local communities from development initiatives. The centralised approach of the Rajapaksa regime meant that the people were not aware and certainly not able to participate in “development”; a devolved political settlement and demilitarisation would have enhanced the genuine participation of the people.

The Tamil Parties

Others claim that this victory for the TNA in the North is an endorsement of its Tamil nationalist politics, a politics that continues not only from its Federal Party decades but also its stint as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) proxy. Here again a careful reading of the TNA would reflect a hotchpotch of actors who constitute the TNA with differing messages coming from them. While TNA leader Sampanthan seems to be increasingly moderating the larger demand to be that of a devolved power-sharing arrangement within a united Sri Lanka, others are singing a different tune. And when it comes to election rhetoric in meetings, some TNA candidates were by no means moderate given their abusive language as well as playing on extremist nationalistic sentiments. The more significant point is that if one extends the election results to Killinochi, one needs to account for the victory in the two councils by the TULF led by Veerasingham Anandasangaree, someone who at great risk to

august 6, 2011

his life challenged the LTTE. The cooperation between the TNA and TULF is reflective of the changing Tamil political landscape in the post-LTTE era.

Next, this election may be better read |as an overwhelming protest vote against the Rajapaksa regime, rather than a full endorse ment of the TNA. In fact, the TNA is yet to articulate a coherent vision for Tamil politics and a programme to move forward after the war. This is not to belittle the support for the TNA, but rather to point out that there is much work left in Tamil politics. Furthermore, progressive actors in Tamil society need to challenge and shape Tamil politics around the various fault lines of class, gender, caste and region. There is also the need for soul-searching among the EPDP and the other parties that emerged through armed militancy, on their political role in moving forward.

Elections are only one part of the process of rebuilding an alternative Tamil democratic politics. The LTTE’s fascist politics severed Tamil representational politics of any organic links with the people. The decade ahead must produce an alternative Tamil democratic politics, rebuilding and going beyond representational politics, with an emphasis on transforming society. Perhaps it is only the generation that grew up during the war and suffered its consequences in the North and East, weary of the flaws of the previous political generations, which can now lead Tamil politics with a democratic ethos to build bridges with the Muslim, up-country Tamil and Sinhala communities towards rebuilding a plural post-war Lanka.

In the months ahead, the issues of development, demilitarisation, devolution and democratisation are bound to return to the North, not only because of the continuing international focus on post-war political reconciliation, but also because of the Northern Provincial Council elections. The Rajapaksa regime’s approach to the Tamil community in the North is not one that can heal the wounds of a devastated people. The people responded in the ballots with dignity. If there is a larger lesson to be learned from the local government elections in the North, it is that there are limits to the political muscle of party machines and patronage. And this indeed is a victory for democracy in the country.

vol xlvi no 32

Economic & Political Weekly

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