A breakaway group of the Tamil rebels won the first local elections held in 14 years in violence-plagued eastern Sri Lanka, election officials said on Tuesday, as President Mahinda Rajapaksa hailed the conduct of the polls as a victory for democracy.
The government-backed Thamil Makkal Vidudal Puligal (Tamil People's Liberation Tigers, TMVP), won 72 of 101 seats on nine local councils, the officials said after Monday's voting, the first since the TMVP helped the government drive separatist Tamil guerrillas from the area last year.
The primary battle was for the municipal council in Batticaloa, 240 km east of Colombo, where the TMVP, contesting the elections there under the banner of the ruling United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA), secured 11 of its 19 seats after obtaining 53.77 percent of the 26,331 valid votes, officials said.
Turnout, however, was low as 29,153 people cast ballots when 54,945 were registered to vote in a region that has continued to see violence and intimidation since the departure of the rebels.
For all nine council elections, an estimated 55 percent of the 270,471 registered voters turned out to vote.
The government came under criticism for holding the vote with human rights groups and some political parties saying violence and voter intimidation made a fair election impossible, but Rajapaksa hailed the voting and thanked those "who helped make a success of the government's policy of restoring to the people of the east their democratic rights".
"I believe that the representatives of the people chosen in this peaceful election are the harbingers of success in the historic march to strengthen and widen democracy in our country," the president said.
The TMVP has not laid down its arms, saying it needs them for its own security because it remains under threat from rebels of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which at times has infiltrated the area to carry out attacks.
The TMVP, which was accused of being involved in abductions and extorting money ahead of the elections, vowed to work closely with the government and provide political leadership for development of the once war-ravaged eastern province, but it is also suffering through its own internal strife.
The LTTE's former eastern province leader, V. Muralitharan, alias Karuna, formed the TMVP in 2004 after breaking away from the rebel group. The government obtained the support of the Karuna group during its yearlong offensive that drove the LTTE out of the east. Karuna, however, was arrested in London while travelling under a forged passport and jailed.
Since then, differences have split the TMVP as the leadership has been taken over by a member known as Pilliyan.
Meanwhile, the military was continuing operations in the north in what the government has described as a similar objective to restore democracy by recapturing areas held by the LTTE, which is seeking to establish an autonomous state for Sri Lanka's Tamil minority.