After a gap of 20 years, polls for the de-merged Eastern Province took place on 10 May 2008 to usher a "new dawn in the East". A total of 1342 candidates belonging to 18 parties and 56 independent groups contested the 37 seats in the three districts of Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Amparai. Sixty per cent of the 982,721 in the electorate voted. Not surprisingly, the ruling United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) in alliance with the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal (TMVP) and dissident Sri Lankan Muslim Congress (SLMC) won 20 seats gaining a slim majority to form the government. How credible are these results? Does this mandate in favour of the ruling regime assure popular support for the ongoing 'War for Peace Programme'? What does the future portend?
Except the pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance (TNA), all the opposition parties participated in these elections. This provided legitimacy to the polls. However, rigging in the elections negated their credibility. Rigging took place in two stages. In the pre-election stage, the opposition candidates could not campaign freely, while the UPFA contestants liberally used state resources and media for electoral gains. Electors were threatened to vote for a particular party or face the consequences. On the day of the elections there were reports of ballot stuffing and impersonation. For instance, the independent Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) recorded "64 incidents of violence and among them 48 were classified as major offences and 16 as minor. Of the Major Offences, systematic impersonation was the most widespread. Most of the major offences were committed in the Batticaloa district (28) followed by Amparai (12) and Trincomalee (8)." Condemning the results as "irreparably flawed" the opposition announced a mass agitation. Can the government do anything about it?
Brushing aside opposition allegations, the government has interpreted the results as a green signal to wage its war against the LTTE in the north. President Rajapakse said, "I note that the people of the east have given a clear mandate for peace through the defeat of terrorism, the strengthening of democracy and the development of the country." The aim is to emulate the eastern model and clear the north from the LTTE to conduct a similar electoral exercise there. This is not going to be easy. In the absence of a pro-government Tamil armed group like the TMVP, the north is different from the east. The Tigers are offering stiff resistance to the government forces both in Mannar-Vavuniya-Weli Oya and Muhamalai. The government also needs to face a simultaneous challenge in tackling the LTTE's suicide attacks in the south. Linked to all these questions is the ongoing economic downturn."
The future does not look rosy. A peace process is nowhere in sight. The current success in the east could be converted into an opportunity to begin the long journey for peace, and the following steps are worth considering:
First, to restore confidence in the opposition, and gain credibility for the eastern provincial election results, the government could order re-polling in all those polling stations where rigging is alleged. If the opposition wins, the government should concede with grace; so should the opposition instead of blindly opposing the government. The people's faith in the electoral exercise would thus be restored and enhanced.
Second, based on the re-polling results, the government should go ahead with deciding who should be the Chief Minister of the Eastern Province. The Chief Ministerial candidate should be in a position to enjoy the trust and good will of all the three communities involved. The present choice of Pillayan, the de facto TMVP chief, for the post of Chief Minister seems arbitrary, making it appear that the government only wished to appear "benevolent towards the Tamils" instead of being guided by a realistic analysis of the situation on the ground. Due to the resentment of Muslim members, there is every danger of an imminent political stalemate. A model of rotating Chief Ministership between Tamils and Muslims, with according a Deputy Chief Minister's post to a Sinhalese is worth considering. The east could be a model of how the three communities could share power amicably, and live peacefully together.
Third, if the government concentrates all its resources to humble the LTTE in the north, where will it find the funds to develop the east? The government's plan to solicit international aid for this purpose is good. The international community, however, is suspicious about development aid getting diverted to the war effort. To gain the confidence of the aid agencies, the government should go slow on the war front, and give priority to developing the east. Once the east is developed, defeating the LTTE will not be difficult.