A former political proxy for Sri Lanka's defeated Tamil Tiger rebels swept the country's northern provincial election, according to results released on Sunday, in what is seen as a resounding call for wider regional autonomy in areas ravaged by a quarter century of civil war.
The country's elections commission announced that the Tamil National Alliance will form the first functioning provincial government in the northern Tamil heartland after securing 30 seats out of 38 in Saturday's election. President Mahinda Rajapaksa's coalition won the other seats.
The win provides a platform for the party to campaign for an autonomous federal state, although the provincial council is largely a toothless body.
The Tamils have fought unsuccessfully for six decades - through a peaceful struggle and then the bloody civil war - for self-rule.
The elections are seen by the United Nations and the world community as a test of reconciliation between the Tamils and the majority ethnic Sinhalese, who control Sri Lanka's government and military.
"We asked the people (for votes) and the people have given. Now it's our turn to reciprocate," the chief minister elect, retired Supreme Court Justice C.V. Wigneswaran, told The Associated Press.
"The government has to learn from the victory of ours. The people have spoken democratically...the people have shown in no uncertain terms what their aspirations are. So I am sure the government will take stock of the matter and help us to make democracy work in the Northern Provincial Council," he said.
Rajapaksa called the election after much international criticism that he had delayed fulfilling wartime promises to share power with the minority Tamils. And the largely successful carrying out of the election could deflect some pressure off the government ahead of a meeting of Commonwealth country leaders in Colombo in November.
The government has rejected international calls that it has not thoroughly investigated alleged war crimes committed by its troops, especially at the end of the war when, according to a U.N. report, they may have killed 40,000 Tamil civilians. The Tigers have also been accused of widespread war crimes, including forced recruiting of child soldiers.
The election result also suggests that a vast majority of voters prefer self-rule over Rajapaksa's effort to win them over through infrastructure development.
However, the provincial council is largely powerless and the new government led by Wigneswaran will have to contend with a center-appointed governor who will control most of the council's affairs, which could cause rifts between the provincial and central governments.
But the two-thirds majority on the provincial council means Wigneswaran can follow through with his threat to call for a no-confidence vote against the governor - a retired military officer.
The central government retains control over taxes and has financial autonomy in the province, so it could withhold money to frustrate any council plans it disagrees with.
Wigneswaran said before the vote that winning would give his administration the public backing to lobby for wider powers based on federalism.
But he will have to face a two-pronged challenge - from Colombo unwilling to part with any power and an influential expatriate Tamil lobby insisting that the party work for total independence.
The central government is against devolving any substantial power and says even existing powers in provincial hands, such as those over land and policing, are a threat to the country.
The country's ethnic divisions widened with the quarter-century civil war that ended in 2009 when government troops crushed the Tamil Tiger rebels, who were fighting to create an independent state. At least 80,000 people were killed in the war, and northern cities, including many on Jaffna peninsula, were reduced to rubble.
While the TNA won the north, Rajapaksa's ruling United People's Freedom Alliance coalition swept to wins in two ethnic Sinhalese-dominated provincial councils - Central and the North West- in a sign of the existing ethnic polarization. Much of the Sinhala south strongly backs Rajapaksa for winning the war and his hard-line stand on devolution
Government spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella said the two victories were an endorsement of the government, adding the TNA victory was a reflection of democracy in the Indian Ocean nation.
Rambukwella said the government had expected the TNA to win, and that it was now an opportunity for the TNA to prove itself.
On calls for wider autonomy, Rambukwella said only changes within the existing constitution would be allowed.
Tamils have been demanding regional autonomy to the country's north and east, where they are the majority, since Sri Lanka became independent from Britain in 1948. The campaign took the form of nonviolent protests for many years, but in 1983 civil war broke out between government forces and armed Tamil groups calling for full independence.
The provincial council was created in 1987 as an alternative to separation. But the Tigers - the strongest of the rebel groups, and eventually the de facto government across much of the north and east - rejected it as inadequate. The fighting that followed prevented the council from functioning.
The military defeat of the Tigers meant Tamils were back to where they had started 60 years earlier, with no tangible achievement, tens of thousands of deaths and losing another million people who fled the country as refugees.