KILINOCHCHI, Sri Lanka (AP) — Minority Tamil candidates are hoping a weekend election in their heartland in northern Sri Lanka will give them a mandate to demand self-determination, but the nation's ruling coalition has campaigned with unexpected zeal.
Its aim is a victory that would blunt calls for an international war crimes investigation and vindicate the harsh tactics that killed thousands of Tamil civilians here in the final months of its quarter-century civil war.
The Tamil regions in the island's north and east, areas once controlled by the Tamil Tigers rebel group, account for 26 of the 65 local council races being decided Saturday. There are no reliable pre-election polls to predict the outcome.
Sri Lanka's top officials — including President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Cabinet ministers — have jumped into the fight for minority Tamil votes, with help from a pro-government Tamil paramilitary-cum-political party. They have cut ribbons on projects for sports complexes and played cricket with local youths. They promise to rebuild Tamil homes and insist they are trusted friends.
It is a rare effort for a minor ballot, but the governing United People's Freedom Alliance coalition insists it is committed to communal reconciliation — though none of its touted programs toward healing has begun.
This victory "is of value to the government," Sports Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage told The Associated Press while campaigning in the former Tamil Tiger northern rebel base of Kilinochchi. "It will enable us to tell the world that we have won the confidence of the Tamil people after winning the war."
Since the war ended in 2009, former rebel proxy Tamil National Alliance, or TNA, has won most of the region's parliamentary seats.
But local elections held last year in the main Tamil city of Jaffna dealt the TNA a major blow by handing control to the governing coalition.
The government has said the result proves Tamils are open to working with the center and are keen to reap its campaign promises including the release of war prisoners, reconstruction of destroyed homes and reviving commerce and the job market in their shattered communities.
Ethnic Tamil politicians said alleged intimidation of Tamil candidates should raise concerns about possible government interference in the results. Winning traditional Tamil areas would help the government marginalize the TNA as the main representative of the Tamil people and dismiss its demands for devolving power to Tamil regions, TNA lawmaker Sivagnanam Sritharan said.
The government has already rejected some of TNA's key demands, including more control over local police and land.
The TNA has urged Tamils to vote with the party and support its call for more authority in Tamil areas — a promise made by Rajapaksa during the war but not yet fulfilled. It even appealed on Tamil news websites for expatriates to call home and persuade relatives to vote for the party.
"We need a political solution recognizing us as a nation with the right to self determination in our homeland of a combined north and east," Sritharan said.
The government is trying to keep Tamils "subdued and mute" he said, but added brightly that "the people will tell this message loud and clear."
Tamil candidates said they faced an uphill battle, though, alleging aggressive intimidation tactics by the governing coalition and its supporters during the campaign.
The TNA says Tamil candidates are being threatened, with one finding a dog's head stuck on the gate to his house. Soldiers also stormed a recent campaign meeting in Jaffna and allegedly assaulted participants and some of the lawmakers' bodyguards, the party said.
Jaffna resident and academic Ratnajeevan Hoole said he had seen police jeeps transporting governing coalition election posters, and politicians violating election rules by distributing goods and promising jobs for votes. "The outcome may not reflect the real will of the people," he said.
With pressure mounting for Rajapaksa to investigate what a U.N experts panel called credible allegations of serious human rights violations toward the war's end, his coalition's candidates have gone on a major charm offensive they hope will win votes and ease the criticism against him.
Rajapaksa's son, lawmaker Namal Rajapaksa, has led ministers campaigning in the north. He has spent weeks in Kilinochchi alone, distributing aid to those struggling to rebuild their lives.
If his party is elected, he says simply, there will be a better future for all.
On Thursday, he staged a friendly cricket match between lawmakers and youths from a nearby village, a day after he was joined by his father for an election rally aimed at capitalizing on the government's planned $3 million sports and market complex in town.
Tamil-language banners, adorned with the president's face, declare: "I am your friend, your relative. Trust me."
"The Tamil diaspora is trying to put pressure on the government," the sports minister said, claiming Tamil expatriates in Europe and the U.S. were still smarting from the "slap in the face" delivered when the government won Jaffna.
"We want to double or triple that victory this time," Aluthgamage said. "It will be a good message to the world that the people of the north have endorsed the program carried out by President Mahinda Rajapaksa."