Sri Lanka’s ruling party won control yesterday of the country’s tense Eastern Province following an election the opposition condemned as irreparably flawed.
The government hailed the victory in a region it freed from rebel rule last year as a mandate to push ahead with its increasingly costly war against the Tamil Tigers in the guerillas’ heartland in the north.
“It shows that the people from all communities want terrorism wiped out from the whole country, not just from the east,” said Chandrapala Liyanage, spokesman for President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The election commission said the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance coalition won 52 percent of the vote, giving it a total of 20 seats on the province’s 37-member council.
The opposition United National Party (UPN) won 42 percent of the vote and 15 seats, while two smaller parties won a seat each, the commission said.
The ruling party ran in a coalition with a breakaway rebel faction known as the TMVP, which has been accused of campaigning with weapons and threatening voters and opposition candidates.
UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake said the vote was marred by violence and rigging and his party was “totally rejecting the results.”
Opposition leaders planned to meet in Colombo to decide whether to file a suit to overturn the election, said Rauff Hakeem, leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, which ran in a coalition with the UNP.
“This is a totally distorted mandate that they got. This is obtained by fraud,” he said.
Independent monitors said the TMVP threatened voters during the election, opposition parliamentarians were attacked by mobs, children who appeared to be around 13 years old cast ballots, and gangs of people shuttled between polling stations to vote numerous times.
There were also several incidents of violence.
Kingsley Rodrigo, head of the independent People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections, said the ruling party misused government resources and the state media in the campaign and that many candidates could not campaign freely.
“I can’t say it was a free and fair election because it was not really,” he said.
However, the election did go smoothly in about 80 percent of polling stations, he said.
About 60 percent of the province’s nearly 1 million registered voters cast ballots, according to the election commission, a turnout that opposition officials and election monitors said was low for a vote of such importance.
Many expected voters, enough to have swayed the election, may have stayed home following a series of bombing and mortar attacks blamed on the Tamil Tigers in the hours before the poll, Rodrigo said.
Liyanage dismissed complaints about the conduct of the election.
“This is clearly a people’s mandate, there was no indiscipline or nothing illegal about it,” he said.
The election was intended to give a degree of self-rule to the region — divided among Sinhalese, Muslims and Tamils — and to counter rebel demands for an independent state.
Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Center for Policy Alternatives think tank, said he questioned how much power the government would actually give the council, which is likely to headed by a former rebel leader known as Pillaiyan.
“Now it’s going to be interesting to see how this council functions,” he said.
Independent monitors said the election went smoothly in some areas, but quickly unraveled in others.