By Ranga Sirilal
COLOMBO, May 9 (Reuters) - Residents in Sri Lanka’s war-ravaged east vote in local elections for the first time in two decades on Saturday, and the government hopes the result will endorse its war to defeat Tamil Tiger rebels.
Security will be tight for the polls in the eastern districts of Trincomalee, Ampara and Batticaloa, where the ruling alliance of President Mahinda Rajapaksa has teamed up with former rebels, whom rights groups accuse of abuses such as child soldier recruitment.
Rajapaksa says the poll is crucial to restore democracy to the area, until recently held by the Tamil Tiger rebels, and allow development after 25 years of war.
The elections are also part of the government’s blueprint for devolution in minority Tamil areas it hopes will go hand-in-hand with its push to win the war in which tens of thousands of people have died.
"The voters have to decide whether to vote for the UPFA and continue with the development or vote for the opposition and help the (Velupillai) Prabhakaran to regain control," Rajapaksa said, referring to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) leader.
Rajapaksa’s United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) has teamed up with former Tigers, who split from the mainstream group and have formed a political party called the TMVP.
Nearly one million people are eligible to vote for 1,342 candidates to fill 35 seats. The vote underpins the government’s twin strategy to defeat the rebels using both the ballot box and the current military offensive.
"It is a very significant election. It is a referendum on the government’s military strategy against the LTTE," said Jehan Perera, an analyst with the National Peace Council, a non-partisan advocacy group.
"It could strengthen the government’s determination to continue that strategy of militarily defeating LTTE. Or it will lead to a loss of confidence and show the vulnerability of the government and lead to a desertion of those parties that are currently within it," Perera said.
Rajapaksa formally scrapped a six-year truce in January. The military quickly stepped up its war against the rebels in their northern stronghold, leading to a surge in casualties on both sides and suicide blasts in the capital.
CALL TO DISARM FORMER REBELS
The Tigers are fighting for an independent homeland for Tamils in the north and east and were driven from the east of the island last year, emboldening the government in its aim to finally crush the LTTE and rebuild Sri Lanka’s economy.
Saturday’s elections follow a smaller, dry-run local poll in the east in March, won by a government-backed party made up of the former rebel fighters, who defected from the Tigers in 2004.
Rajapaksa’s government has dismissed concerns about the TMVP, who have also been accused of abductions and extrajudicial killings and have yet to lay down their weapons.
Rajapaksa’s government has long-refused to disarm the TMVP, arguing it could not find anyone carrying guns to disarm — despite the fact residents and aid workers could see them until a few months ago.
The group’s armed fighters are now conspicuously absent from the streets.
A host of other former militant groups who joined the democratic mainstream in the 1980s are also taking part in the poll.
The main opposition United National Party is contesting with the ethnic minority Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and has accused the government of trying to hand over the east to an armed group, despite their pledge to reinstate democracy in the area.
Perera said the more likely outcome was an opposition victory because of the dominance of the ethnic minority vote.
"But on the other hand, the government’s patronage and the advantage the government has through the armed presence of the TMVP may tilt the balance."
Provincial council elections are held every five years, but elections in the north and east have been repeatedly postponed because of continued fighting since 1988. (Editing by David Fogarty)