By Jehan Perera –
The unexpectedly large scale of the defeat suffered by the government at the Northern Provincial Council elections held last Saturday is an indication of how inaccurate it was in assessing the mood of the electorate in the former war-zone of the North. The government cultivated the belief that economic development and the self-interest of individuals would outweigh their desire for political rights. With its ability to raise large loans from the international community and deliver economic benefits, the government had the decisive advantage over the opposition in that respect. Prior to the election, government leaders went around the North gifting consumer durables and promising jobs for the unemployed. One government candidate even published advertisements in newspapers boasting of his ability to provide employment opportunities. Just prior to the election, the President opened the newest railway station in the former LTTE capital of Kilinochchi on the new railway lines being built to replace those destroyed in the war.
However, the outcome of the elections shows once again that political rights do matter more than anything else to the people of the North. It is likely that the same feelings pervade the Tamil people living in the East, but as they are not in a majority in that province, the numerical strength to show that desire in elections is not available to them. There is no question that economic well being matters to the people of the North and East, and is a priority to them. But there is no getting away from the issue of establishing a system of power-sharing, in which the power to make decisions affecting their lives is provided to the representatives of the Tamil people. Of course, they, like every other community have to be aware that the country is a plural and multi ethnic one, and that decisions need to be arrived at with due sensitivity to that reality, and even giving deference to it. The devolution of powers provided to the provincial councils under the 13th Amendment is the option that was adopted in 1987 during the time of war. It needs to be revised and improved upon now that there is peace.
The holding of the elections to the Northern Provincial Council is the most significant political development relating to the ethnic conflict since the end of the war. There has been no other initiative, except for the Select Committee of Parliament appointed by the government to identify “Political and Constitutional Measures to Empower the People of Sri Lanka to Live as One Nation.” But the main opposition parties have so far refused to join this committee. Apart from the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, there has been no other governmental initiative that impacts upon political issues that are of utmost concern to the Tamil people. It is likely that the strong international pressure on the government to honour its war-time pledge to implement the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and even go beyond to 13 Amendment Plus, in the words of the President, pushed the government to take this positive step.
The elections to the three provincial councils that took place simultaneously on Saturday generated considerable local and international interest. The Northern Provincial Council election was the first since the inception of the provincial council system in 1987 and was widely seen as a positive movement in the direction of post-war normalcy. The elections to the North Western and Central Provincial Councils also generated interest due to the crossover of a leading opposition parliamentarian and high level of intra-party rivalry along with family members of leading government ministers contesting the elections. However, internationally there is no doubt that the elections in the North were the most closely watched. Hundreds of local monitors drawn from national election monitoring organizations, such as PAFFREL, and three international observer teams, focused their attentions on the northern elections.
In the context of lack of any other political progress towards addressing the root causes of the ethnic conflict, the establishment of a provincial council for the Northern Province is the best possible advance. It will give the people of the North, the same devolved power that the people in the other eight provinces enjoy. The quantum of devolved power to them is low. This will offer an opportunity for the Northern Province to join with the other eight provinces to increase the devolved powers and resources, which the other provincial councils also wish to have. The watchful eye of the international community is bound to continue to be on the devolution of power so long as Sri Lanka’s reconciliation process remains incomplete.
It was perhaps inevitable that in the run-up to these elections controversies would emerge. Politicians who seek the people’s votes in countries in which there are ethnic cleavages tend to appeal to ethnic nationalism to obtain the people’s votes. The history of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka is a story of both the government and opposition using nationalism to get the better of each other, even at the cost of the country’s peace. The TNA manifesto and the speeches of its campaigners during the run-up to the election revealed the belief of our politicians in the power of ethnic nationalism to deliver the votes. This evoked a reverse response in the two other provinces where elections were held. In the North Western and Central provinces, government spokespersons called on the electorate to vote for a strong government and against separation.
It is important that the increased polarisation in the polity due to the competing nationalisms of the electoral campaign should be overcome now after the election is over. Both the TNA and government leaderships have struck the note after the election. TNA spokesperson M A Sumanthiran urged the government to ensure that the newly elected council was given an opportunity to exercise its powers under the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Economics Minister Basil Rajapaksa speaking on behalf of the government has said that the government was prepared to work together with the TNA within the framework of the Constitution. There is no doubt that the provincial council system should be strengthened, not only in the Northern Province, but in the other eight provinces also. There is a need to ensure that the provincial council system is provided with more powers and resources, including land and police powers that are already granted in the 13th Amendment and form a part of the Constitution. The provincial councils cannot do this by themselves. They need the cooperation of the central government if they are to achieve their goals of greater devolved power and more resources.
The TNA’s choice of former Supreme Court judge C V Wigneswaran to be its chief ministerial candidate gave the moral upper hand to the TNA. He came into the election untainted by any association with violence or with scandal, having conducted himself impeccably as a Supreme Court judge. His selection by the party leadership has been endorsed by the Northern electorate who gave him the largest number of preferential votes among any candidate in the North. It must be hoped that this moral leadership will continue into the future, as morality is a source of power in itself and is the best antidote to the pragmatism, materialism and reliance on majority power of the government. The administration of the Northern Province needs to make its unique contribution to restoring adherence to the Constitution and the Rule of Law, and by setting a countrywide example by having higher standards of politicians that will persuade the rest of the country to emulate them.
Among the root causes of the ethnic conflict, the issue of discrimination meted out to the Tamil people took a primary place. The fact that even post-war Sri Lanka fails to provide the Tamil people with a sense of having opportunities to live a fulfilled life can be seen in the droves of them that are fleeing to foreign countries illegally in boats. To the extent that the people of the North will enjoy the same devolved power that the people in the rest of the country enjoy, there will be less discrimination. Therefore, the establishment of the provincial council for the Northern Province has the potential to be an act of reconciliation. The words of President J R Jayewardene when he signed the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord in 1987 ring true at this time. He urged the people of country to protect this tender plant. The Northern Provincial Council is a tender plant that must be protected. Neither the people of the Northern Province nor the international community will be satisfied with sham devolution of powers, nor is the over-centralisation of power in Colombo in the interests of the people of the other eight provinces also.