Sri Lanka's government has triumphed in the first provincial elections to be held in the east of the island in two decades.
Saturday's elections were held in a region that until last year was partly controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), more commonly known as the Tamil Tigers. The vote is a key plank in the government's campaign against the rebels: to introduce limited devolution of power to the island while crushing the Tigers with military force.
The ruling United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) won 20 of the 37 seats in the new Provincial Council. It achieved this through an alliance with the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pullikal (TMVP), a party made up of Tiger defectors known for their recruitment of child soldiers and for human rights violations.
Sri Lanka's president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, said his party's victory was a "mandate" for the government to continue its war against the Tigers and to defeat them in the north, reported Bloomberg. Since it successfully drove the rebels from the east last summer, the government has turned its guns on the Tigers' northern lair, an area known as the "Wanni."
Observers, however, reported the widespread view that the election was neither free nor fair, reported Agence France-Presse. The criticisms centred on the TMVP, which remained armed during the electioneering process.
The main opposition party, the United National Party (UNP), which joined ranks for the eastern elections with Sri Lanka's biggest Muslim party, the Sri Lankan Muslim Congress (SLMC), accused the government of "serious malpractices" including vote rigging, according to The Island, an online Sri Lankan paper.
Sri Lanka's Nation newspaper, meanwhile, reported that numerous citizens said they had been denied voting cards. Some had lost their possessions when they were displaced by the war; others had lost their cards in the 2004 tsunami and had not been given replacements. The paper also reported high levels of tension on election day throughout the eastern province's three districts – Trincomalee, Ampara, and Batticaloa.
Several incidents of nasty violence also marred the elections, reported the Associated Press, which said that four members of one family, supporters of the opposition, were badly burned when a bottle of acid was thrown into their home.
The Tigers also played a deadly role in the violence. Early Saturday, a group of underwater suicide bombers known as the "Black Tigers" bombed and sank an empty Navy cargo ship in Trincomalee harbor, reported Reuters. This followed the bombing of a cafe in Ampara on Friday, in which 11 people were killed.
But a lyrical editorial in the island's Sunday Times newspaper said that despite reports of rigging, intimidation, and violence, a devolved, democratic east – which has a broadly equal mix of Tamils, Sinhalese, and Muslims – could still offer a model of how a peaceful Sri Lanka might one day look.