JAFFNA, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka's main ethnic Tamil party earned a convincing victory in the country's northern provincial elections, according to results released Sunday, in what is seen as a resounding call for wider regional autonomy in areas ravaged by a quarter century of civil war.
The Tamil National Alliance will form the first functioning provincial government in the northern Tamil heartland after securing 30 out of 38 seats in Saturday's polls, Sri Lanka's elections commission said. President Mahinda Rajapaksa's coalition won the rest of the seats.
The win provides a platform for the TNA to campaign for an autonomous federal state, although the provincial council is largely a toothless body.
The Tamils have fought unsuccessfully for self-rule for six decades, at first through a peaceful struggle and then the bloody civil war.
The elections were seen by the international community as a test of reconciliation between the Tamils and the majority ethnic Sinhalese, who control Sri Lanka's government and military.
"We asked the people (for votes), and the people have given. Now it's our turn to reciprocate," said the chief minister-elect of Northern Province, retired Supreme Court Justice C.V. Wigneswaran.
"The government has to learn from our victory," he said. "The people have spoken democratically ... the people have shown in no uncertain terms what their aspirations are. So I am sure the government will take stock of the matter and help us to make democracy work in the Northern Provincial Council."
The campaigning period and election day were marked by sporadic attacks and threats against TNA supporters, including some allegedly by uniformed army soldiers.
The U.S. Embassy said in a statement that the involvement of uniformed individuals in election violence was "particularly alarming," adding that a process free of violence and intimidation is needed to further post-war reconciliation.
Rajapaksa called the elections after much international criticism that he delayed fulfilling wartime promises to share power with the minority Tamils. The largely successful conduct of the election could deflect some pressure off the government ahead of a Commonwealth country leaders' meeting in November in Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital.
The government has rejected international calls that it has not thoroughly investigated alleged war crimes committed by its troops at the end of the war, when, according to a U.N. report, they may have killed 40,000 Tamil civilians. The Tamil Tiger rebels have also been accused of widespread war crimes, including the forced recruiting of child soldiers.
The election results also suggest that a vast majority of voters prefer self-rule over Rajapaksa's effort to win them over through infrastructure development.
The provincial council, however, is mostly powerless and will have to contend with a governor appointed by the central government who will control most of the council's affairs, which could cause rifts.
But the two-thirds majority on the provincial council means Wigneswaran can follow through with his threat to call for a no-confidence vote against the governor.
The central government retains control over finances in the province, so it could withhold money to frustrate any council plans.
Wigneswaran said before the vote that winning would give his administration the public backing to lobby for wider powers based on federalism.
But he will face a two-pronged challenge – from a central government unwilling to part with any power, and an influential expatriate Tamil lobby insisting that the party work for total independence.
The central government is against devolving any substantial power and says even existing powers in provincial hands, such as those over land and policing, are a threat to the country.
The country's ethnic divisions widened with the quarter-century civil war that ended in 2009 when government troops crushed the Tamil Tiger rebels, who were fighting to create an independent state.
While the TNA, a former political proxy to the Tamil Tigers, won the north, Rajapaksa's ruling coalition convincingly won two ethnic Sinhalese-dominated provincial councils – Central and North West – in a sign of the existing ethnic polarization. Much of the Sinhalese-dominated south strongly backs Rajapaksa for winning the war and his hard-line stand on devolution.
Government spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella said the two victories were an endorsement of the government, adding that the TNA victory was a reflection of democracy in the Indian Ocean island nation.
On calls for wider autonomy, Rambukwella said only changes within the existing constitution would be allowed.
Tamils have been demanding regional autonomy in the country's north and east since Sri Lanka became independent from Britain in 1948. After years of nonviolent protests, a civil war broke out in 1983 calling for full independence.
The provincial council was created in 1987 as an alternative to separation, but the Tigers – the strongest of the rebel groups – rejected it as inadequate. The fighting that followed prevented the council from functioning.
The military's defeat of the Tigers meant Tamils were back to where they had started 60 years earlier, with no tangible achievement, tens of thousands of deaths and losing another million people who fled the country as refugees.
Associated Press writer Jayampathi Palipane contributed to this report.