As the January 26 Presidential election date approaches, the question of how and where the lakhs of displaced Tamils would vote remains to be answered.
While the election department says that arrangements are in place for them to vote, independent election monitors maintain that thousands of eligible refugee voters may not be able to exercise their franchise.
At the end of the ethnic war in May, nearly 300000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), overwhelmingly Tamils, moved out of former areas controlled by the defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE); thousands were repeatedly displaced and far away from their places of origin, where they were registered to vote.
Between May and end of 2009, almost 200000 of the displaced were allowed to leave the refugee camps. Many are now staying with relatives; some in open camps. Few have gone back to the original, but now destroyed, homes where they would normally vote. About 100000 remain in refugee camps.
Election Commissioner Dayananda Dissanayake claimed arrangements were done to help the displaced vote. ``It is not necessary that they have to go their places of origin to vote. Booths will be put up in the camps. Returning officers have been asked to arrange transport,’’ he said.
But for many among the displaced the problem would be that they are not registered – electoral registration is mandatory -- at their new locations.
The government had set up a mechanism for the eligible voters to register but not many did.
``That’s because there was not enough awareness programmes done by the government to educate the people about the (electoral) process, on how to register and where they could vote,’’ Keerthi Thennakoon, director, Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CAFFE), said.
Thennakoon said: ``84000 had registered for voting in the Manik Farm refugee camps. They can vote. But many of them have left the camps. No one knows whether they would return to vote. And no one knows about (how) those who
have moved out of the camps (will vote).’’
The eligible Tamil voters among the refugees are part of the nearly-12 percent of the Tamil community that make up the 14 million voters of the country. In 2005, the LTTE had given a call for election boycott and few from the community voted. But next Tuesday, they could indeed emerge as a decisive factor in the increasingly close election between the top two
contenders, President Mahinda Rajapaksa and retired general Sarath Fonseka.