Sri Lanka's Presidential Election: Hardliner Rajapakse wins
Polling cards pile up on the floor as election workers count ballots in Colombo.

Sri Lanka's Presidential Election: Hardliner Rajapakse wins

Numbers show narrow victory could have been result of record-low Tamil voter turnout

By Arthur Rhodes
AsiaMedia Contributing Writer

Friday, November 18, 2005

Colombo --- A record-low voter turnout among Tamils from Sri Lanka's volatile Northeastern provinces likely contributed to the victory of hardliner Mahinda Rajapakse in Thursday's presidential elections. Rajapakse, candidate of the United People Freedom Party (UPFA) and former prime minister, won 50.29 percent of the vote while United National Party (UNP) candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe took 48.4 percent.

Rajapakse needed just over 50 percent of the vote to win, and he may have gotten it because of the Tamil votes that were not cast for his opponent. Only 1.21 percent of over 700,000 registered voters in Jaffna, a government-controlled area heavily influenced by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), voted. Almost none of the 300,000 eligible voters in LTTE-governed territory went to the polls. The Election Commissioner's office reports that Rajapakse won by just 180,760 votes.

One week before the election, the LTTE, the primary governing body of the Northeastern Tamils, declared that it would not endorse either candidate and began encouraging its people to abstain from voting. Analysts predicted a low turnout in the Northeast, but violence and intimidation on election day kept even more voters out of polling stations than expected. Reports of voter intimidation and election-related violence began streaming in from the area almost immediately after the polls opened at 7 a.m.

No polling stations were set up in LTTE-controlled areas; citizens who wanted to vote had to first pass through LTTE checkpoints and into government territory. Military spokesperson, Brig. Witharanage, said rebels in the East gathered in heavy numbers at exit points in order to intimidate anyone attempting to cross into government territory. Armed men from LTTE territory erected barricades of burning tires along crossing areas, and turned back anyone attempting to exit the rebel-controlled zones, he said.

LTTE spokesman, Thaya Master, told AsiaMedia that youth groups and angry citizens, not LTTE soldiers, were agitating at the crossing points.

"They were expressing their disinterest toward the elections, and protesting against the Sinhalese candidates," Master said. "It is not our business to do something like this, but if our people choose to demonstrate, we will not stop them."

Helen Olafsdottir, Information Officer of the Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission (SLMM), the organization appointed to oversee the nation's 2002 ceasefire agreement, says that although no one can prove that the LTTE was directly involved in erecting the barricades, it is their duty to ensure safe passage of citizens through the areas under their control.

Several election-related grenade attacks were also reported in the Eastern district of Batticaloa. According to the election monitoring group People's Action for Fee and Fair Elections (PAFREL), grenades were lobbed into two polling stations injuring several poll workers, two police officers and six bystanders.

While the Sri Lankan military believes that the LTTE is behind the attacks, no arrests have been made and no clear evidence has been uncovered that would point to a specific culprit, said Witharanage. Olafsdottir said that any number of the armed groups in Batticaloa could be viable suspects in the attacks.

"We have no idea and neither do the police at the moment. The situation over there is very chaotic and very dangerous," she said.

Voters' fingers were marked in permanent ink to prevent anyone from voting more than once. (Photos by Arthur Rhodes)

Although many of the Northeast's Tamil citizens had expressed disinterest in the run-up to election day, intimidation and threats clearly affected voter turnout, said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Co-Director of the Center for Monitoring Election Violence.

"We do not know exactly how many people were disinterested prior to polling day," said Saravanamuttu. "What we do know, however, is that many citizens who wanted to vote were unable to do so because of direct denial of access to polling areas, or because of indirect intimidation intended to scare them away."

Rajapakse promised to strengthen the language of the ceasefire agreement and rejected the LTTE's claim to a separate homeland. He pledged not to resurrect an agreement to share tsunami aid with the rebels and aligned himself with the country's two most outspoken Sinhala nationalist parties. His victory is a clear indication that many in the country want to see a tougher stance taken with the LTTE.

But Rajapakse's polarizing platform could allow the LTTE to declare peace negotiations impossible. This could become a potent argument in the LTTE's campaign for a separate homeland, an idea that is widely unpopular in the Sinhalese-dominated South.

"The election of a hard line candidate in the South reinforces and justifies the hard line stance of the LTTE," Saravanamuttu said.

Wickremesinghe and the UNP are contesting the election on the grounds that voters in the Northeast were denied access to polling stations. Elections Commissioner, Dayananda Disanayake has denied the party's appeal for a repoll.

The LTTE will withhold official comment about the election until Nov. 27 when the group's leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, will make his annual address to the Tamil people.