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This is my Nation


Politics littered with sinister fractioning!

Right now though, the war in the North appears to be inexorably linked to the elections in the East, because the outcome of the polls will have a significant bearing on what happens next politically in the North. Holding provincial council elections achieves several objectives for the government. In the main, it lends credibility to the government claim that its writ now runs in the East and that it is successfully prosecuting the war against the LTTE. That will gain the government goodwill in the South

The theatre of conflict in Sri Lanka is ever changing and not least because there are so many conflicts brewing. There is a war in the North, there are pitched political battles in the East and, as if for comic relief, there is a battle within the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna in the South.

After the JVP captured the headlines for a couple of weeks, the eastern provincial elections regained its focus after a lull in campaigning during the New Year holidays. But last week, even the polls were eclipsed by news of fresh military offensives in the North resulting in significant casualties.

There have already been suggestions from opposition political parties that the timing of the military thrust in the North-weeks before the polls in the East-may be a political ploy of the government to sway the eastern voter. Whatever the motive, the battles are real and the casualties are high.

In what might be the first response in the South to the offensive, a bus bomb exploded in Piliyandala on Friday evening killing at least two dozen people. Clearly, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) will resort to that tried and tested method: terrorise the South to stop the war in the North.

Right now though, the war in the North appears to be inexorably linked to the elections in the East, because the outcome of the polls will have a significant bearing on what happens next politically in the North.

Holding provincial council elections achieves several objectives for the government. In the main, it lends credibility to the government’s claim that its writ now runs in the East and that it is successfully prosecuting the war against the LTTE. That will gain the government goodwill in the South.

Apart from this advantage, the eastern polls will ensure that separation of the northern and eastern provinces is not only formalised but also actually put into practice - a feat that was not achieved since the signing of the Indo-Lanka accord over twenty years ago.

The polls will also cause a tacit acceptance of the province as the unit of devolution of power to the regions - at least for the time being while the country searches for an alternative that will satisfy both majority and minority aspirations.
Because of all these reasons, this is a high value election with too much at stake. And it is compounded by the complex ethnic mix among Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims in the region with no community having an absolute majority.

Unfortunately therefore, the election battle lines have been drawn on a communal basis. The primary issue at stake appears to be who will be Chief Minister in the province with both the Muslims and Tamils staking their claims.
For the Tamil community, having their Chief Minister is vital to sustain any claim for the contiguity of the northern and eastern provinces. A homogenous northeastern Tamil majority region could after all be the basis of a future solution to the ethnic question.
Also, there has historically been some animosity between the Tamil communities in the North and the East. Hence, Eastern Tamils would see vindication of their status if they are able to elect a Chief Minister to the East while the North is still embroiled in a war.
For the Muslims of the eastern province, there are other contentious issues. For long, the LTTE rode rough shod over them disregarding their concerns. They were seen to count only when the Tigers needed to proclaim the region as belonging to ‘Tamil speaking people.’

The polls are therefore probably the first opportunity for the Muslim community in the region to assert its voice. Understandably, after their experiences with the LTTE the Muslims fear that the election of a Tamil Chief Minister will again relegate them to second class status.

But it is not a simple, Tamil versus Muslim battle either. The intricacies of Muslim politics also play their role. The mainstream Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) needs to re-assert its dominance in the region after the demise of its founder M.H.M. Ashraff and this is a significant political moment for the party.

All this is of course compounded by the fact that the two major parties, the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led coalition and the United National Party (UNP) are having a battle of their own, testing public opinion through proxies.

The government has the unstinted support of the Tiger breakaway group Tamileela Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP) and the M.L.M. Hisbullah led group of the SLMC. The UNP is relying on the Muslim Congress to deliver the goods for them.

On the matter of the Chief Minister, the ruling party has ducked the issue with President Rajapaksa declaring that the group with the most number of seats in the Council could have its Chief Minister, indicating that the President does not wish to alienate any community before the poll.

 The UNP however has taken the plunge and announced SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem as the contender. It is a calculated gamble at best because the decision may cost the party crucial Tamil votes in a region which has been friendly towards the UNP.

All these issues will have a bearing on the final outcome of the poll. However, the most crucial factor may be none of these but whether the election will be free and fair. And as of now, that is an entirely unknown quantity which will reveal itself only as the elections unfold on the tenth of May.

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