Lankan polls leave Tamils cold

Fighting elections in Sri Lanka’s embattled northern Jaffna can resemble fighting a real war. Candidates move from bunker to bunker communicating over wireless with soldiers in forward positions while helicopter gunships provide cover and gunboats patrol the coastline. And when the two frontrunners for the November 17 presidential polls, PM Mahinda Rajapakse and Opposition leader Ranil Wickremasinghe decided to campaign back-to-back in this Tamil stronghold, last week, it bore all the characteristics of a military operation.

The focus of the two whistle stop tours appeared to be to woo the 100,000 plus voters of the armed forces and police, rather than the Tamil minority for which Jaffna is the cultural and political capital. Ethnic Tamils make up 14 per cent of Sri Lanka’s 20 million population

and recent opinion poll suggest that their vote could be decisive.

Both candidates vowed to push for peace and recommence negotiations with the LTTE stalled since April 2003. Wickremasinghe has indicated that he was willing to accommodate the Tigers, if elected.

Rajapakse, who is campaigning on a much more nationalistic platform and has pledged to renegotiate the 2002 truce agreement, took a more hardline stance. The Tigers have so far appeared to resist backing any of the candidates. Nevertheless, several shadowy organisations have released statements in Jaffna asking voters to boycott the polls.

The Tigers officially released a statement denying any responsibility for a purported letter from the organisation asking the voters to cast their ballots. Tiger high rankers have claimed that neither of the main candidates was fully committed to solving the ethnic conflict and that their main aim was to win the election.

However, some observers in Colombo feel that the Tigers are flexing their muscles just before the poll so that they could have a stronger bargaining power with the next president. The call for a boycott comes in the wake of an opinion poll that indicated the Tamil vote would be key factor. The Social Indicator, a poll conducted by the Colombo-based Centre for Policy Alternatives, said that Wickremasinghe gained a national advantage on key issues due to the overwhelming support he received from the minority vote base. Forty five per cent of the majority Sinhala community felt that Rajapakse was best suited to handle the peace process during the survey. However, Wickremasinghe increased his approval rating to 45.4 per cent nationally, riding largely on the 82.4 per cent rating he received from the Tamils.

Several incidents were reported from Jaffna during the week the candidates campaigned, including an attack on a police patrol and a grenade attack near the office of a party supporting Rajapakse. The situation is the same in the volatile east where renegade Tiger commander Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan and his cadres have been waging a bloody internecine battle against the Tigers since his defection.

Voters living within areas under the control of the Tigers have to travel to cluster booths located in no-man’s land and are most likely to stay away if violence flares up or the Tigers indicate support for the boycott. Around 400,000 voters are registered from Tiger-held areas in the north east. — IPS