After three decades of protracted conflict and four years of relative peace, a recent event has emerged as a sign that democracy, albeit ailing, is still alive in the island-nation of Sri Lanka. On Sept. 21, 2013, for the first time in 25 years, provincial council elections were held in the war-ravaged Northern Province, offering the country’s ethnic Tamil minority, largely present in the region, the opportunity to choose its own political destiny. Sri Lanka established provincial councils in 1987 as a result of the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement that called for the devolution of power to the provinces in a bid to end the country’s ethnic conflict. Today, Sri Lanka has nine provincial councils, all of which have held regular elections—with the exception of the Northern Province, which was the scene of bloody conflict until the majority Sinhalese government’s victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2010.
Since then, national and international actors have called for an accelerated process of reconciliation, epitomized for many by the hosting of provincial council elections. Long promised yet long overdue, the elections finally took place in an atmosphere of relative calm and high expectations. Voter turnout was an unprecedented 67.52 percent of the registered voters. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA)—a coalition of Tamil political parties and former LTTE militants—achieved a landslide victory, securing 78.48 percent of the vote and 30 of the 38 seats on the council. The central government's United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) came in at a distant second, obtaining 18.38 percent of the votes and 7 seats.
The TNA’s victory implies a huge boost in its visibility and legitimacy in the eyes of national and international actors. Long considered the political arm of the LTTE, the TNA gave up its demands for self-determination in 2010, announcing its readiness to accept regional self-rule. In its 2013 election manifesto, the TNA stressed the paramount importance of sharing “powers of governance through a shared sovereignty amongst the peoples.” The TNA’s newfound political legitimacy offers it a rare opportunity to push for power-sharing and reconciliation. But the TNA’s victory was less a sign of support for its political manifesto than an overt expression of opposition to government policy to date. The party now faces the challenge of uniting its constituency in favor of power-sharing. Certain groups of Tamils, especially members of the Tamil diaspora, persist in their demands for full self-determination—demands the TNA cannot likely ignore given the diaspora’s financial clout, especially if Colombo does not come forth with development assistance or political compromise. Indeed, the TNA seems to have taken this into consideration in its electoral manifesto, in which it also recognized that “the Tamil people are entitled to the right of self-determination.”
However, the central government has strongly opposed even moderate calls for devolution on the grounds that granting it would invite other provinces to follow suit. There is therefore little likelihood that TNA demands for the devolution of power over land, law and order, resources and fiscal powers will be met.
Even more sensitive are calls emanating from the TNA and certain segments of the international community for the demilitarization of certain areas occupied by the army, independent investigations into crimes committed during the war and the overall reform of the country’s security sector. For a government reaping the benefits of victory, questioning the actions—past or present—of the military that was largely responsible for that victory is not a viable option. The less thorny issue of development, on the other hand, could now get a boost. To date, the government has invested a considerable amount of funds in the development of roads and infrastructure in the region. According to a recent survey conducted by the Colombo-based Center for Policy Alternatives among registered voters in the North, 90 percent of those surveyed acknowledged at least some improvement in development. With post-election enthusiasm leading to a foreseeable increase in donor assistance, and both the TNA and the central government eager to show their commitment to the reconstruction of the Northern Province without endangering their own political interests, this trend is likely to continue.
A key challenge for both the government and the TNA, however, is to ensure that the region’s population directly benefits from these development efforts. This requires moving beyond the construction of physical infrastructure to rebuilding the lives of those affected by conflict. Job creation, housing, education and the provision of basic health care and social services should receive urgent priority. Other challenges could pose a threat to the reconciliation process. The first is the possibility that the central government could disengage from the Northern Province, leaving all responsibility for political and economic reconstruction to the TNA. As President Mahinda Rajapaksa said in a recent interview with Al Jazeera, “It is easy to criticize, now let [the TNA] deliver.” However, cutting off the Northern Province from the rest of the country will only strengthen calls for self-determination. Second, the TNA, either through necessity or conviction, could strengthen its links with more hard-line elements of the Tamil community both at home and abroad, leading to resurgence in demands for autonomy. Finally, the international community, in its eagerness to accelerate the reconciliation process, could marginalize certain key actors or idealize others, thereby over-internationalizing an inherently national process.
Although the elections in the Northern Province were a milestone in Sri Lanka’s political history, they will not lead to an immediate political solution. More time is needed for the TNA to settle into its role as political leader of the Northern Province, for Colombo to get accustomed to sharing power and for both the TNA and the government to learn to trust each other. Extreme caution should be paid not to subject either party to excessive pressure, lest an already fragile reconciliation process be derailed. The elections mark the beginning of a long and slow reconciliation process that, to succeed, needs to address the concerns and aspirations of all concerned.