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Provincial polls in Sri Lanka: A new dawn?

Gautam Sen is a retired IDAS officer who has served in senior positions at the Centre and in a north-east State Government.
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  • October 04, 2013

    In the recently concluded elections in the northern province of Sri Lanka, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) led by C V Vigneswaran won a landslide victory. The election conducted within the purview of the 13th Amendment was by all accounts free and fair. A popular will was expressed by a 35% turnout of the northern Tamil voters. The last election, held in 1988, was virtually a one-party dominance of the India-backed Ealam Peoples` Revolution Liberation Front (EPRLF) in midst of bitter confrontation between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. Not to be forgotten was the presence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) under the India-Sri Lanka Accord. In contrast to the recent voting, the election of 1988 was far from normal. The EPRLF which came to power collapsed soon after the de-induction of the IPKF from the island country. Thereafter the democratic process was grinded to a halt till the decimation of the LTTE.

    For President Mahinda Rajapakse it was not an easy decision. In fact many believe that it was a calculated gamble to call elections in the northern province. The options for Rajapakse were to either allow a TNA victory and give space for the democratization process including the gradual devolution of administrative and financial powers to the northern province, or face further international criticism, particularly from the Western countries, for resisting local self- governance in the Tamil dominated area. Rajapakse was perhaps even hopeful that the United Peoples` Front Alliance (UPFA) led by his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) may win a substantial number of seats to form a large political group in the new northern provincial legislature thereby checkmate the political aspirations of the TNA.

    The election results though not what Rajapakse`s might have expected yet seems to have brought political dividends. How? The victorious TNA has not adopted a strident approach towards the Sri Lankan government and its leader CV Vigneswaran, showing political maturity, has declared that the TNA would be a responsible party working within the prevailing Sri Lanka`s laws.

    One can now expect a meaningful political dialogue between the Sri Lankan government and the TNA on the feasible interpretation and application of the autonomy measures under the 13th Amendment. While a dialogue is necessary to enable the new provincial administration at Jaffna to function effectively, a prudent approach on the part of CV Vigneswaran will be to avoid pressing for more decentralization of administrative and legislative powers to the province. The TNA-lead provincial government will have to prove its political sensibility and administrative ability and fulfill the aspirations of the long-suffering Tamil people of the northern province. The task of governance in the area – affected, till recently, by vicious conflict, destruction of all means of livelihood and human rights violations – will be herculean.

    The mainstream political opposition of Sri Lanka, in particular, the United National Party (UNP) should work on a political strategy which promotes effective decentralization of powers to all the provinces under the Sri Lankan Constitution. This may be in the long-term a rewarding political move. The UNP may be able to erode the present support base of Rajapakse among the lower and lower-middle class Sinhalas of the deep southern and south-central parts of the country. The UNP and its allies would then be seen as friendly political entities by the provincial administrations in the Sinhala controlled and Sinhala majority areas. The TNA-led northern provincial administration would also benefit from further decentralization measures.

    India may work at different levels with a political strategy which promotes political consensus within Sri Lanka among its mainstream political parties , for effective decentralization of a range of powers intended to bring about meaningful governance in the provinces in areas which affect the daily lives of the local people like , education , heath, employment , acquisition of assets for trade and commerce in essential supplies and services , etc. without jeopardizing the territorial integrity , or affecting the infrastructure and logistics of Sri Lanka .

    The recent northern provincial election has provided an opportunity for moving towards a more substantive decentralization of powers to the provinces by a process which could be consensual and without any threat of coercion. This opportunity would be lost if short-sighted political brinkmanship is resorted to either by the UPFA or its UNP rivals. The existing scope of decentralization under the 13th Amendment, minus land rights, should be allowed to

    In the light of this India will be required to play a mature role albeit cautiously. India should facilitate and support the functioning of the TNA provincial government through a consultative and consensual approach with the mainstream political parties of Sri Lanka.

    The national elections are not far off in India. Notwithstanding the political pressures from Tamil Nadu, the Centre will have to resolve to work towards a conducive environment which allows the newly elected northern provincial administration in Sri Lanka to survive and function.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.