JAFFNA, Sri Lanka (Reuters) - Sri Lanka's main ethnic minority Tamil party secured a landslide victory in a provincial poll that threatens to rekindle animosity between the government and Tamils, four years after the military crushed separatist rebels and ended a 26-year war.
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the former political proxy of the defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, won 30 seats in the 38-member provincial council in the former northern war zone, election officials said on Sunday.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa's ruling coalition won 7 seats, while a Muslim party won one.
It was the first provincial council election in the north in 25 years and was held after the government came under international pressure to restore democracy.
Defeat for the government, the most humiliating set-back for Rajapaksa since he assumed office in 2005, is largely symbolic.
But the TNA's victory shows that the defeat of the rebels in 2009 did nothing to subdue calls for autonomy among Tamils, who make up about 14 percent of Sri Lanka's 20 million people.
"This is a strong message to the international community to say that Tamils need a political solution," said a voter in the northern town of Jaffna, computer studies lecturer T. Sivaruban.
"It could be a separate state or power sharing within a united Sri Lanka," said Sivaruban, 33.
The TNA won more than 84 percent of the votes in Jaffna, once the heartland of the rebel movement, 81 percent in Kilinochchi, the de-facto capital of the separatists, and 78 percent in Mullaitivu, where thousands of civilians were said to have been killed in May 2009 when government forces moved in to defeat the rebels.
The government has accused the TNA of renewing calls for a separate state through its push for devolution of power. The TNA says it wants devolution in a united Sri Lanka, not a separate state.
"They must trust us," C.V. Wigneswaran, the chief candidate for the TNA who will be the province's chief minister, told reporters.
"We are for an undivided Sri Lanka, where there is a certain amount of self-ruling under the federal constitution," he said.
BACK TO BARRACKS?
A foreign observer said the election commission had done a very good job inside the polling centers, though it did not have any control over what went on outside, where some voters reported attacks and intimidation.
Wigneswaran, a former Supreme Court judge, said the military's occupation of large parts of the north was the main problem for the people.
Many voters have called for the return of land that they say the army has occupied. They are also calling for the withdrawal from the north of the army, which was accused of human rights abuses in the final stages of the war.
"They must be put into barracks somewhere else," Wigneswaran said.
While Wigneswaran urged self-rule, some voters were more blunt, calling instead for a separate Tamil state.
For decades that was the goal of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who launched their war in 1983 to end what Tamil activists saw as systematic discrimination by Sri Lanka's Sinhalese majority.
Election officials said they received "plenty" of complaints, including of intimidation of voters during the polling, but turnout was about 68 percent.
The military has rejected any suggestion of involvement by the security forces in election-related violence.
Rajapaksa has a majority of more than two-thirds in the national parliament and controls the eight other provinces, including the two won with a majority in Saturday's poll.
His party won 36 seats in 58-member Central Province and 34 in the 52-member North Western Province.
The president has faced international pressure to bring to book those accused of war crimes committed at the end of the war, and to boost reconciliation efforts.
His government has rejected accusations of rights abuses. Rajapaksa in July ordered an inquiry into mass disappearances, mostly of Tamils, at the end of the war.