By Shihar Aneez
JAFFNA, Sri Lanka (Reuters) - Citizens in Sri Lanka's old war zone voted for local leaders for the first time in at least a dozen years, in a poll marked by intimidation, vote-buying and skepticism by the mostly Tamil electorate of any kind of post-war political change.
Soldiers remained on the streets across the north, as they have since the May 2009 end of a 26-year war between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who fought for a separate state for Sri Lanka's Tamil minority.
The election is for local councils but has assumed wider significance with President Mahinda Rajapaksa under pressure to prove to ally India and the West that he is serious about ethno-political reconciliation amid calls for an international probe into war crimes allegations stemming from the war's final phase.
A government victory would allow Rajapaksa, who is from the Sinhalese ethnic majority, to demonstrate he has Tamil political support. He has campaigned aggressively mainly on a platform of development projects which have gotten mixed reception.
Around 350,000 people were registered and turnout was 46 percent in Jaffna and 65 percent in the other major cities of Mullaittivu and Kilinochchi, robust figures despite the intimidation and violence -- low by the standards of voters used to wartime voting seasons where murder was the norm for defying the LTTE.
"For the people it is an election that has come after a long time. So it is very important. People have their own political aspirations and they should be allowed to express them freely without any force," retired principal K. Shanmuganathan told Reuters in the northern city of Jaffna.
Election observers said a supporter of the ruling United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) was killed in the north-central Anuradhapura district in an intra-party dispute.
In at least 20 villages, uniformed men offered 1,000 Sri Lanka rupees ($9.14) for people to sell their voting cards, and beat those who refused, the Campaign for Free and Fair Election (CaFFE) observer group said.
INTO THE FIRE
Elsewhere, government supporters handed out free food near polling stations, and men linked to a government proxy group threatened others to vote for the ruling party.
At least one local government officer demanded voters cast their ballot for the opposition Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the LTTE's former political proxy and the most influential remaining Tamil party, CaFFE said.
Elections were conducted when the LTTE, which was on more than 30 nations' terrorism lists, ran a de facto state and ordered people how to vote at gunpoint.
"For Tamils, there is no difference since the end of the war. If the government thinks the LTTE is a frying pan for Tamils, then this is a fire," TNA legislator E. Saravanapavan told Reuters.
In Jaffna, which is on the northernmost tip of Sri Lanka, it is the first election for local councils in 12 years. In the Tigers' self-declared capital of Kilinochchi and Mullaittivu, where they met their final defeat, these are the first local government polls in 29 years.
Devolution of power from the center was a main demand of LTTE, and although it won a constitutional concession for that in 1989, the changes have never been enacted. Rajapaksa has been slow to meet any Tamil political demands.
"This government is creating room for Tamil people to resort other ways like an armed struggle or to bring pressure through international community," said Saravanapavan, a former newspaper editor who has been threatened by pro-government forces before.
($1 = 109.450 Sri Lanka Rupees)
(Writing by Bryson Hull; Editing by Yoko Nishikawa)