Eastern Provincial Council elections on May 10                                                                                

Stage set for final showdown


The stage is set for the final showdown on May 10 in the Eastern Province. The Provincial Council elections in the east, which will be held for the first time since the creation of provincial councils, will get underway next Saturday and a huge number of voters close to one million will cast their votes in three Eastern Districts – Digamadulla (Ampara), Trincomalee and Batticaloa.

The two main political parties have set-up alliances with political parties in the periphery to contest this election with a number of other smaller parties and independent groups, including the JVP and EPDP, contesting for the provincial council.
First eastern election

The provincial councils were created under the 1987 accord between Sri Lanka and India and the first ever elections were held soon after that for the amalgamated north and east. In the circumstances, this is the first time an election for the east is being held.
The ruling UPFA as well as the opposition UNP have launched house to house campaigns in these three districts to grab power in the province. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) is not contesting since it feels that the elections are not valid under a de-merged east.

TNA General Secretary R. Sampanthan in an interview with this newspaper last week said that the Tamils would not accept the de-merged east as a legally carved out province since the de-merger contravenes an international accord signed between Sri Lanka and India.

In his view, he said, that the government should not contravene such an agreement, which is part of international law now.
However, it is said that the TNA is discreetly supporting the UNP candidature in all three districts though Sampanthan had pronounced that his party would not support any political entity which is contesting this election.

The TNA appears to be confused or it is perhaps employing a political ploy, since it has not openly called for a boycott of the elections, if it considers that carving out the east from the north is a seriously flawed decision.

TNA position

If the TNA’s position is that the elections are not valid and it is not the legal right of the government to hold an election for the east alone, then the political analysts say that it should have made it known to its people and called for a boycott. But, in this instance, it is not happening, which means that there could be other plans devised by the TNA.

The government is of the view that the TNA is silently campaigning for the UNP in all three districts. However, the pertinent question that arises from this is as to whether the Tamils in the east would support an election of a Muslim chief minister from the Eastern Province.

If the Tamils support the UNP unconditionally and elect a Muslim chief minister, some analysts think that it would entrench the Muslim leadership in the east, which would create a problem for the government when arriving at a final solution under the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

The government is obviously looking for Indian support to arrive at a final solution to the ethnic crisis and it is the desire of the Indians to have the two provinces merged when arriving at a final solution based on the 13th Amendment.

Installing a Muslim as a chief minister would certainly create a problem for India since there would be serious impediments affecting such moves.

In this backdrop, India does not want the opposition to win this election, which would mean that a Muslim would be at the helm. On the other hand, even if the government wins and M.L.M. Hisbullah is installed as Chief Minister, Hisbullah in turn has to fall back to the original SLMC position, where they agreed to work in a merged north and east with non-contiguous councils for the Muslims in the east.

Chief ministerial stakes

If the government emerges victorious, it is more likely that a Tamil civil servant would be appointed as aChief Minister, dashing the hopes of Muslims who worked for the government.

At present, the Muslim vote is divided between the UNP and the UPFA. A majority of the Muslim votes are likely to go to the UNP and it appears to be the case in Ampara and Trincomalee. The government could win this election mainly on the Tamil vote from Batticaloa.

Statistics clearly show that there is a tough fight in both Digamadulla and Trincomalee Districts while the government will have a cakewalk in Batticaloa. The Muslim vote, it is said, would be divided on a 65%-35% basis between the UNP and the UPFA. It is the Batticaloa Tamil votes that would carry the government to victory. In that scenario, it is inevitable that the government would appoint a Tamil Chief Minister.

Such a move would make the government look good in the eyes of the international community and it is the fervent wish of the Indians to instal a Tamil Chief Minister with a view to finding a final solution in a merged north and east.

The Tamil vote base in all three districts is slightly higher than the Muslim vote base though there are more Muslims than Tamils according to census data. Therefore, unless a Tamil Chief Minister is installed in the east, it would be a rather difficult task to find a lasting solution under the 13th Amendment.

If the UNP emerges victorious, it would be a comparatively difficult task to find a final solution based on the Indo-Lanka Accord, and a Muslim Chief Minister would mean that India’s dreams would be shattered.

Tamil vote

What is still unresolved is as to why the Tamils should vote for the UNP to elect a Muslim chief minister, which will not pave the way for the Tamils to find a solution to their problems.

However, in reality it appears that in Trincomalee District, there is a swing towards Rauff Hakeem in majority Tamil areas, perhaps due to the fact that Hakeem is encouraging more Tamil settlements in the cleared areas south of the Trincomalee Port.

It will be interesting to see how the Tamils would vote at this election or whether they would keep away without exercising their franchise.

A victory for the UNP means the government would face a serious setback after having liberated the east from the clutches of the LTTE and having done so much development work in the area in the aftermath of the liberation. However, that is yet to be seen.

A proper analysis could only be possible if a free and fair election is held devoid of violence, rigging and intimidation of voters. It is the hope of many that there would be a level playing field for all political parties contesting this election to woo the voters on the basis of their policies.