Let polls in Jaffna be a benchmark for future

Weeks after the government militarily crushed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), different battle lines are being drawn: local government elections will be held for the Jaffna Municipal Council and Vavuniya Urban Council.

The move is most welcome and will be seen as a significant first step towards restoring peace, law and order and a semblance of democracy in a region that for nearly three decades was under the writ of the bullet rather than the ballot.

But more is at stake here rather than a mere local government poll. In more ways than one, this election will serve as a benchmark not only for future political events but also as a gauge of the government’s commitment towards redressing the grievances in the North.

It is true that defeating the LTTE was a singular achievement for the government. It is a deed unparalleled in contemporary Sri Lankan history and the ruling United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance will reap political dividends as a result, especially in the south of the country.

But this victory did come at a price: the Tiger propaganda machine worked overtime to ensure that the government’s commitment to human rights was called into question, however unjustified those criticisms may be in the context of fighting a war against the most ruthless terrorist organisation in the world.

The massive exodus of two hundred and fifty thousand people in the aftermath of the endgame of the Eelam war meant that, the government had yet another problem on its hands - a humanitarian crisis of mega proportions, the kind of which it had never dealt with before.

Even now, as the government tries desperately to grapple with the many issues relating to the internally displaced persons, its bona fides are being questioned, not only by Tiger sympathisers, but also by an entire bloc of western nations and international organisations.

It is in such a context that the local government polls will be held in Jaffna and Vavuniya. Needless to say, the spotlight will automatically focussed on these elections, not so much in terms of its outcome but more about the manner in which it is conducted.

If there can be one criticism about the government’s course of action following the final Eelam battle, it is that it has not demonstrated enough, in concrete terms, its commitment to seek a political solution to the grievances prevalent in the North and East.

There appears to be some consensus that any future political concessions will be centred around the 13th amendment but then again, it is difficult to decipher a definite trend in this direction - we see the likes of National Freedom Front leader Wimal Weerawansa, an avowed articulator of the government’s agenda claiming that the 13th amendment belongs nowhere but in the dustbin of history.

It is in such a scenario that the Tamil community freed from the clutches of the LTTE, are now finding their political feet. It is important that they have a crutch to cling to and there has been no tangible offer as yet, apart from a promise to engineer a ‘homespun’ solution to their grievances.

Therefore, the polls in Jaffna and Vavuniya will in a sense be a referendum on the government’s conduct towards the Tamil community. If the ruling party finds that it cannot replicate the successes it has had in the South of the country, it should make the think tanks in the higher echelons of government think again.

That the Tamil polity has also still not got its act together is obvious in the many factions that are seen vying for office at the poll. Therefore, not only will the elections be a popularity poll for the government, it will also be a litmus test for the many Tamil political parties who are seeking to be heard once again after decades of oppression by the LTTE.

Also of immense significance is the ground situation during the polls. Provincial elections held in the recent past, especially in the East, have led to allegations of intimidation by armed groups although perhaps not to an extent that it would alter the outcome of the poll.

The role of this gun culture in the North in the current context is yet to be defined: until now the gun culture in this region was defined by the LTTE and their agents. Now that the LTTE as a fighting force is no more, many observers would expect to see a free and fair poll. If that materialises, then the government’s stock would rise not only in the eyes of the international community but among the long suffering public in the North as well.

Even for the mainstream opposition, largely represented by the United National Party (UNP), the polls would be a welcome diversion. Battered by successive election defeats in the South, the UNP would attempt to regain some lost ground in the North, as it sees itself as an entity that embraces all communities. Whether this will, in fact, translate into votes for the premier opposition party remains a pertinent question.

In more ways than one therefore, the local government polls in Jaffna and Vavuniya assume a larger than life significance. But we should rejoice at the very fact that elections are being held at all in this region and that celebration would be that much sweeter if the polls are conducted in a free and fair manner enabling the election of a worthy winner, whoever that may be.