Poll rules may deter Tamil voters
The Sri Lankan Election Commissioner's decision to avoid locating polling booths inside regions controlled by the Tamil Tiger guerrillas is likely to affect the voting prospects of around 270,000 people, many of whom are unlikely to travel to distant ballot stations to vote.
The Election Commissioner decided this week to set up polling stations for such people in no man's lands (neutral zones) and at entry points to government areas from rebel-controlled regions. If this happens, citizens will have to travel around 30 miles to cast their votes for the April 2 polls, and undergo checking by both the rebels and government forces.
The arduous process is likely to deter several prospective voters, mostly from the minority Tamil community.
These people were deprived of voting in the December 2001 polls due to a civil war. They were hoping to be able to vote this time because of the ongoing ceasefire between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels and the government.
But the Election Commissioner has ruled out polling booths in LTTE-controlled areas since the government's police officers are not allowed there.
Says Assistant Election Commissioner K Senanayake, "It all depends on safety. We will locate booths in no man's lands which are free of landmines, and where there are landmine threats, we will set up booths close to the entry points to government controlled areas."
The number of polling booths to be set up in no-man's zones and near government checkpoints will be decided on March 23. Only the police will be allowed in the no man's zones, not the army. The government will run special bus services for voters.
Many are unhappy with the decision.
One of them is Neelakandar Kandasamay, secretary for the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Center for Human Rights and Development. "We understand the police cannot enter rebel areas to man polling stations. But if stations are located outside LTTE controlled areas, whether in no man's zones or in government controlled areas, civilians will prefer to stay at home," he observes.
While stressing that voters will face a lot of inconvenience as a consequence, Kandasamay predicts that, "The voter turnout from rebel areas will be minimal this time."
Agrees secretary of the NGO Federation of Eastern Economic Development, Salman Hafeel, "It is a myth to think people will spend hours at security check points and come to polling booths located 20-30 miles away from their homes just to vote."
The poor voter turnout will have a severe fallout. Since 100 per cent of those in rebel controlled areas belong to the minority Tamil community, their inability to cast votes will reduce the number of seats won by Tamil parties in certain districts.
For instance, in the last elections in the predominantly Tamil district of Batticoloa in eastern Sri Lanka, the main Tamil party, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), could win only three of the five seats, although according to the ethnic break down it could have won four.
But since the polling stations were set up only in government-controlled areas, some 67,976 Tamil civilians in rebel areas in the district were barred from voting in the 2001 polls.
As a consequence, Muslim parties won two seats, although, under normal circumstances, they would have won only one of the five seats. As the eastern province is crucial when it comes to power sharing among ethnic communities, such discrepancies have severe repercussions.
Says former TNA parliamentarian from Batticoloa Joseph Pararajasingham, "This time the number of voters in the uncleared areas has increased by another 10,000. If these people are deprived of their voting rights due to reasons beyond their control, it would be a violation of their democratic rights and result in a distortion of representation."
TNA national leader R Sampanthan has asked the European Union election monitoring team for the April 2 polls to push for measures to ensure maximum voter turnout from rebel controlled areas in the northern and eastern provinces.
Interestingly, before the LTTE's publicized split two weeks ago, it had threatened Colombo with disastrous repercussions if polls were not conducted inside areas controlled by the separatists. In the past two decades of an insurgency that has claimed around 60,000 lives, the LTTE is reported to have scared away people from voting in several polls.
But after its eastern commander Karuna recently left the group along with thousands of cadres, the LTTE led by Vellupillai Prabhakaran has changed its stance on the issue of this year's polls.
Prabhakaran's men said they would assist the government in voting procedures, irrespective of where the booths were located.
The LTTE's political wing chief SP Thamilselvan was quoted as saying, "Whether the polling booths are located in LTTE controlled areas or not, we will cooperate with the election officers."
The Karuna faction too has now agreed to extend its support for a free and fair election.
Says the chairman of the leading election monitoring body People's Alliance for Free and Fair Elections, Kingsley Rodrigo, "Measures should be taken to arrange polling booths in such a way that there will be a maximum turnout of voters from the LTTE areas. But security should not be compromised."