Sri Lankans lined up to vote in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, on Saturday
JAFFNA, Sri Lanka — Despite an apparent campaign of dirty tricks by its opponents and reported efforts at intimidation, the Tamil National Alliance won a sweeping victory on Sunday in the first provincial elections in 25 years in Sri Lanka’s war-torn north.
The Tamil alliance won 76 percent of the vote in the Northern Province and 30 of the 38 seats on the provincial council. The governing coalition won 18 percent of the vote and seven of the seats, with a Muslim party winning the final seat.
“These results show that we want political rights and not just peanuts from the government,” said E. Saravanapavan, a member of Parliament representing the Tamil National Alliance. “We are equal citizens and want political power to run the place.”
Four years after the bloody end of the Tamil insurgency, Tamils in the north yearn for a reduction in the still vast military presence. The army continues to occupy thousands of homes and administer its own farms, factories and resorts on appropriated land for which the government has paid little or no compensation.
Kuni Takahashi for The New York Times
A police officer stood guard as voters left a polling station in Jaffna.
Analysts say it will be increasingly important for President Mahinda Rajapaksa to follow through on more of his promised reconciliation efforts to avoid frustration among the Tamils. Since he has concentrated much of the government’s power in his and his family’s hands, the provincial councils have little power.
“The Tamils will go through the motions to try to use the council system, but they will be frustrated because the system doesn’t work,” said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives in Colombo. “So the Tamils will ask for reforms, and the government will be very stupid if they frustrate them.”
The elections were hard-fought, and a variety of apparent dirty tactics were used to try to defeat the Tamil alliance. Campaign posters appeared for Tamil candidates that gave incorrect selection numbers; voters here choose candidates by numbers and not names, so the posters seemed intended to fool voters into selecting the wrong one.
A fake version of a respected newspaper in Jaffna, Uthayan, was also distributed. It stated that Ananthi Sasitharan, a popular Tamil candidate, had left the Tamil National Alliance and joined a party associated with the governing coalition. The story claimed that as a result, the Tamil alliance was boycotting the election.
“We got hundreds of calls asking us if the story was true,” said S. Anuraj, an editor of the actual Uthayan newspaper. “People said the papers were being handed out by military men dressed in civilian clothing.”
Since Uthayan costs 20 rupees instead of being free, Mr. Anuraj said, many people were suspicious. “They should have sold it,” he said with a laugh. “We don’t know who printed it, but we soon will.”
The fake newspaper may explain why turnout in the first hours of the election was relatively light in Jaffna, with many polling places reporting only a trickle of voters. But by midday, turnout had become decidedly heavier after a concerted effort by Tamil alliance officials to assure people that the story was false. By the time polls closed, officials estimated that 60 percent of those eligible had voted in Jaffna.
Turnout in other Tamil-dominated districts was even higher, soaring to 71 percent in the onetime insurgent stronghold of Mullaitivu.
More than 100 men, many of them wearing military uniforms, appeared at Ms. Sasitharan’s house on Thursday night to try to get her to drop out of the race, several witnesses said. Ms. Sasitharan had already left the house with her three daughters to seek safety; the men used clubs to beat people remaining there.
International human rights groups have accused the Sri Lankan government of killing some 40,000 people, many of them civilians, in the war’s final weeks.
The end of the insurgency has provided a boon for Sri Lanka. The economy has recovered. Roads have been rebuilt, tourists have returned, and the pervading sense of unease that gripped the country for decades has largely evaporated.
But prominent opposition politicians fear those gains will evaporate without some efforts at political reconciliation with the Tamil population.
“Had we used the opportunity that came with the end of the war to reach out, one could argue the deaths were not in vain,” said Mangala Samaraweera, a member of Parliament representing the United National Party, an opposition party unaffiliated with the Tamil alliance. “But we’re back to the same old vicious circle. Are we going to kill 20,000 to 30,000 people every 25 years for the Sri Lankan state to survive? That’s what you have to ask.”
One voter, Jeyabanumathy Thanaseelan, said her hopes for this weekend’s elections were simple: she wants to go home from the refugee camp where she lives with what is left of her family. Like other Tamils interviewed, she refused to say how she had voted.
Ms. Thanaseelan is one of thousands here whose homes and lands were confiscated in 1990 during the height of the insurgency. The country’s army needed bases, and Ms. Thanaseelan’s land happened to be in Kankeskanthurai, which is considered the most beautiful and fertile region in the otherwise somewhat arid north. The army confiscated more than 6,000 acres.
Now that the war is over, however, the government has decided to develop that land rather than return it to its owners. A port and an airport have been built, along with a luxury resort, rice paddies and other agricultural endeavors all operated by the army.
More than 3,000 people have filed claims against the government over the land seizures, but the Supreme Court — now entirely under the control of President Rajapaksa — has delayed the cases for years.
Meanwhile, two of Ms. Thanaseelan’s four children have died of diseases that she believes resulted from the fetid conditions in her refugee camp, Kannaki. She lives in a hut made of bamboo, wood and corrugated metal that was filled with flies in the stifling heat on Saturday.
“My daughter died during last year’s monsoon, when water with garbage in it poured into our house,” she said. “All these houses flood when it rains.”