- Associated Press - Sunday, July 24, 2011

JAFFNA, Sri Lanka — A proxy to Sri Lanka’s now-defunct separatist Tamil Tiger rebels swept local council elections held in areas ravaged by the country’s 25-year civil war, officials said Sunday, amid reports of intimidation and vote-buying.

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) won 20 local councils out of the 25 it contested in the ethnic Tamil-majority north and east, the Elections Department said. President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance coalition secured five councils in Saturday’s vote.

The election assumed unprecedented national significance, with the main two rivals both seeing it as a confidence vote.

The resounding victory consolidates the Tamil National Alliance’s status as an authentic representative of ethnic Tamils in negotiations with Mr. Rajapaksa’s ethnic majority Sinhalese-controlled government in sharing political power and postwar rehabilitation.

The party had appealed to voters to give it a mandate to demand self-rule in the Tamil-majority areas.

Mr. Rajapaksa’s ruling party, for its part, had hoped a victory for its allies would blunt calls for an international war-crimes investigation, mostly coming from the U.S. and other Western nations, and vindicate the harsh tactics that killed thousands of Tamil civilians in the final months of the civil war, which ended in May 2009.

It also could have allowed Mr. Rajapaksa to offer a less generous power-sharing deal, which his Tamil allies would most likely have accepted.

Mr. Rajapaksa already has rejected a demand by the Tamil National Alliance to allow Tamil control over local police and land.

“It clearly shows the Tamil people’s stand on political and development matters,” TNA lawmaker Suresh Premachandran said of the election result.

Sports Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage had told the Associated Press earlier, while campaigning in the former Tamil Tiger rebels’ northern base of Kilinochchi, that a victory for the governing party would “enable us to tell the world that we have won the confidence of the Tamil people after winning the war.” He said it also would silence a strong expatriate Tamil community lobbying for a war-crimes investigation.

The results in Tamil areas were a sharp contrast to elections in ethnic Sinhalese-majority regions also held Saturday, with the United People’s Freedom Alliance sweeping all 40 councils. That result highlights Mr. Rajapaksa’s immense popularity among Sinhalese more than two years after leading the war victory, and also shows the ethnic polarization that still exists.

Election monitoring group Campaign for Free and Fair Elections said in a statement Saturday that uniformed men suspected to be members of the military, which still has a large presence in the former war zone, were forcibly collecting voting cards, apparently to rig the vote. It reported that such incidents took place in 20 villages.

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