Sri Lanka's Tamil heartland to vote Saturday

Jaffna, Sep 20 (IANS) Sri Lanka is all set to hold Saturday the first election to form a provincial council to govern its Northern Province, the former bastion of the vanquished Tamil Tigers.

It will also be the first election in 25 years in the sprawling region which includes Jaffna, the Tamil cultural and political hub in Sri Lanka.

The Commonwealth Secretariat has called it a landmark election because it takes place in areas which were once controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which was crushed in May 2009 after over a quarter century war.

The main candidates in the election are from the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which is seeking greater powers for the Tamil minority.

The government has accused the TNA of trying to divide the country.

Rajapaksa has said that by building new roads and repairing the damaged infrastructure in the north, the government wants to pave the way for new business opportunities in the region.

He said former LTTE cadres have been provided job opportunities. The president warned that if a provincial council refuses to work with the Sri Lankan government, development work will suffer.

If the TNA wins the election, former Supreme Court judge C.V. Wigneswaran is expected to become the chief minister of the Northern Province.

Wigneswaran has that Tamils want "self-determination" -- a comment that has drawn widespread criticism from the government and among the Sinhalese majority.

But the TNA leader rejected claims that his party favours a separate state for the Tamils.

Early this week, the TNA formally complained to a group of election monitors from SAARC countries about alleged widespread breach of election laws.

M.A. Sumanthiran, a TNA MP, told the election monitors led by former Indian Chief Election Commissioner N. Gopalaswami that election laws were being violated in the North.

Amidst fears of voter intimidation and vote rigging, foreign election monitors, including a team from the Commonwealth, were invited to observe the elections.

The Commonwealth monitors, who Thursday formally began their work in the North, said they will look at the entire process leading up to the elections.

A popular think tank in Sri Lanka has said that most people in the Northern Province were optimistic that the election will be free and fair.

The Centre for Policy Alternatives said a survey found that 34 percent of respondents believe that the TNA will win in the election while 21.7 percent feel the government will prevail.

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