A Sri Lankan police officer stands guard as ethnic Tamil voters leave a polling station after casting their votes in Batticaloa, Sri Lanka, Saturday, Sept. 8, 2012. Sri Lankans voted Saturday in a provincial assembly election seen as a test of whether minority ethnic Tamils still want self-rule or are content with the government's development of an area devastated by a quarter-century civil war. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)
BATTICALOA, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lanka's ruling party has defeated the country's main ethnic Tamil party in a provincial election seen as a test of whether Tamils still want self-rule or are satisfied with government-led development programs in a region devastated by decades of civil war.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa's United People's Freedom Alliance won 14 seats in the Eastern Provincial Council, while the Tamil National Alliance secured 11, the Department of Elections said Sunday.
Though it did not win enough seats in Saturday's election to form a single-party government, the UPFA may get the support of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, a centrist alliance partner that won seven seats, to muster a majority in the 37-member council.
The defeat will be seen as a setback for the TNA, which was hoping that a victory would be seen as a mandate for more power-sharing in Tamil-majority areas. The TNA has sought a form of federalism, but talks with the central government have been stalled since January. The ethnic Sinhalese-controlled government, meanwhile, was looking to use an election victory to show that Tamils are content with postwar development.
Voter turnout in Batticaloa, one of Eastern Province's three districts, appeared very low, especially in Tamil villages. Official statistics were not immediately available Sunday.
Varnakulasingham Kamaladhas, an analyst and social worker in Batticaloa, said a low Tamil turnout pointed to public apathy toward politics after years of violence, as well as a shift away from a nationalistic mindset.
"The voting patterns show that the Tamils have looked for a genuine people-based leadership. In its absence they have voted for the TNA," Kamaladhas said.
Suresh Premachandran, a TNA lawmaker, said his party performed below expectations because not enough Tamils voted. But he said the number of seats won by the TNA indicates that a majority of Tamils still support the party.
Tamil politicians have long claimed that Eastern Province is part of a Tamil homeland, along with Northern Province. However, unlike northern Sri Lanka, where Tamils are an overwhelming majority, the east has near-equal numbers of the country's main ethnic groups — Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. Tamils complain that successive governments since independence from Britain in 1948 have sponsored Sinhalese settlements with the aim of changing Eastern Province's demography and weakening the Tamils' claim to it.
Tamil Tiger rebels fought a quarter-century civil war to create an independent Tamil state in a merged north and east. The war ended in May 2009 when government forces defeated the rebels.
Since then, the government has rebuilt a number of roads and bridges in Eastern Province, connecting it better with the rest of the country. It also has started a domestic airport project and promotes tourism in the province's long stretches of beaches.
The ruling party also swept two more provinces in predominantly Sinhalese areas, winning a total of 49 out of 77 seats.
Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella said the results were a public endorsement of the government, and the eastern outcome showed there was no justification for more power sharing.