Sri Lanka: First take on Northern Provincial Council elections
by R Hariharan on 23 Sep 2013 3 Comments

Nearly 78.5 percent of the 4.25 lakh people of the Northern Province who voted in the Provincial Council elections on September 21, 2013 have given the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) a thumping victory. The TNA won 30 seats, including 2 bonus seats in the 38-member Council, while the ruling United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) secured 7 seats and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) won a single seat.


The results were not unexpected; but the large voter turnout of 67.5 percent evidently boosted the TNA figures. TNA’s performance points to a broad acceptance of its reading of political aspirations as reflected in its manifesto.


The TNA went into the election after some introspection with its Diaspora patrons and Tamil intellectuals. This resulted in the TNA naming an apolitical personality - retired Sri Lanka Supreme Court judge CV Wigneswaran - as its chief ministerial candidate. This prevented TNA from dissipating its energies in a leadership struggle between the three major parties that dominate the five-member conglomerate.


Justice Wigneswaran enjoyed an excellent national reputation as a jurist and did not belong to any party. Any doubts about his belief in the Tamil Cause vanished after he delivered the Thanthai Chelvanayagam Lecture, “Whither Sri Lankan Tamils” at Colombo on April 25, 2013. The rhetoric and the nuance of the speech appealed to most Tamils, despite some unorthodox views. Undoubtedly, the choice of Wigneswaran helped the TNA to broaden its support base as he was apolitical and belonged to no special interest group. Probably this persuaded a large number of voters to support TNA after their energies have been sapped by two and a half decades of war.


He also fitted in the TNA bid to project a new image, distancing itself from its tainted political association with Prabhakaran, while retaining the idiom of ‘Tamil Nation’ at its core. This desire made the manifesto more a vision statement than a mission statement listing specific objectives of the Party.


For instance, it reaffirmed the Tamils’ right of self determination and the desire to find a solution to satisfy Tamil aspirations within a federal structure as stated in the Oslo Communiqué.  The TNA failed to pursue this objective when it meekly bowed down to Prabhakaran and allowed him to be the sole arbiter of Tamils in the peace process, with disastrous results.


To resuscitate this objective in the present context of Sri Lanka is going to be an uphill task because much water has flown down the Kelaniya River since then. The reality is the LTTE has been eliminated as an extra constitutional rider on finding a solution to the Tamil issue. President Rajapaksa has been elected twice after disowning the federal solution and wishing away the existence of any ethnic problem in Sri Lanka. Tamils have been reduced to play their weakest political wicket now. And last but not the least, there is a government “showing signs of heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction,” (to quote UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay at the end of her recent visit to Sri Lanka).


Now, the TNA in office in the NPC has no choice but to build an equation with Colombo to fulfil the expectations it has kindled among the people.  This is going to be a trying task for the TNA as a whole and the chief minister in particular. lf there is anyone who can undertake the task of striking an equation with an intransigent government, it is probably the chief minister designate Wigneswaran. As a Tamil judge at the highest court of the nation he had walked a tight-rope through the trying period of ethnic conflict. Though he is a non-political personality, he has the acumen to take informed decisions while dealing with the government.


Fortunately, he appears to have more confidence in finding home grown solutions (Rajapaksa’s much maligned usage) without external intervention, unlike other TNA leaders. Already he has shown signs of keeping an open mind on issues like participation in the CHOGM (Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting) being hosted by Sri Lanka. He will also be facing a challenging task ahead as he has to carry the disparate and divided TNA polity with their own agendas to tackle a scheming UPFA out to pull the rug from under his feet at the first opportunity. If Wigneswaran has to arrive at a working relationship with Colombo, it is essential for the TNA to shed the ghost of Prabhakaran driving from the backseat throwing broad hints at separatism.


On the other hand, the election results have also showed the total rejection of President Rajapaksa’s strategy of using development needs as an alternative to fulfilling political aspirations. He could have helped the UPFA put up a better show at the polls, if only he had adopted in an inclusive approach in the development process to involve the people in the traumatic years after the end of Eelam War. But it seems that is not his style, not only in respect of Northern Province, but also other provinces.  


For others it may not matter; but the voting has shown that UPFA has not endeared itself to the people of the Northern Province. After losing their kith and kin, livelihood and habitat in the war, they have to be satisfied with a retired General sitting as Governor and arbiter of their fate with a sizeable army breathing down their necks even four years after the war. This is no advertisement for the UPFA.


President Rajapaksa’s post war strategy had always been a mystery. As Dr Dayan Jayatilleka wrote, if only he had held the Provincial Council elections say immediately after the war, he could have given form and content to his claim of waging a war of freedom. Politically it would have made sense as the TNA was in disarray and the UPFA had an opportunity to make a real difference to the people. Evidently, he decided to sacrifice the advantage to get a huge majority in parliament and get elected for a second term.


Even as the election results were streaming in, President Rajapaksa was off to New York to attend the UN General Assembly. He can now confidently face the audience to point to the successful conduct of elections in the Northern Province, as promised. In a way he is correct, by and large the election was conducted peacefully in spite of the invisible dirty tricks department’s clumsy attempts at confusing the voters and sporadic cases of intimidation of voters and a reported case of opening fire at a van carrying voters. One can only hope Rajapaksa takes note of the thumping endorsement the people have given to the TNA and facilitates building a working relation with Chief Minister Wigneswaran.  


And one can only hope Wigneswaran’s troubles as chief minister are not beginning. He needs everyone’s good wishes to succeed in his thankless task of getting the job done. And that includes not only his electors, but also the TNA leaders and the Government of President Rajapaksa.


Col R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka as Head of Intelligence. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. His email is and he blogs at 

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