Sri Lanka's main Tamil party wins key vote in the north

Charles Haviland in Jaffna: "This victory appears to exceed the Tamil National Alliance's own expectations"

Sri Lanka's main Tamil party has won the first elections for a semi-autonomous council in the island's north after decades of ethnic war, official results show.

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) won 30 seats in the 38-member council following Saturday's Northern Provincial Council elections.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa's coalition won seven of the other seats.

The vote took place four years after the army defeated Tamil Tiger rebels.

The TNA will now form the first functioning provincial government in the northern Tamil heartland.

The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress won one seat.

Analysis

The TNA secured its victory with 78% of the vote. But apart from an apparent brief burst of firecrackers, there have been few overt celebrations in Jaffna. A resident told the BBC he and friends wanted to celebrate publicly but the army was watching so they did not.

A group of youths declined to give any reaction to the BBC for the same reason. But a retired transport employee said the result marked a "stepping stone forward to self-determination" - within a united Sri Lanka, he stressed.

The provincial council's powers were limited, he noted, and ministers had warned that "everything depends on the president".

The TNA's 80-year-old leader, Rajavarothiam Sampanthan, said the victory was a chance for everybody to "think afresh about the future".

Meanwhile a government MP who had campaigned in the North, Udith Lokunbandara, said northerners had experienced "true democracy for the first time".

The BBC's Charles Haviland in Jaffna says the result is a sign that the mainly Tamil population of the north is looking for a high degree of self-government - but there will now have to be intense bargaining with the central government on what that will entail.

The Tamil-majority Northern Province, which was first promised such a body decades ago, is the only region that has never had its own council.

The run-up to the election was marred by allegations of army intimidation that were firmly denied by the authorities.

Swathes of the region were once strongholds of Tamil Tiger rebels, who fought against the mainly Sinhalese army for a separate homeland as Sri Lanka was plunged into a bitter and bloody civil war for 26 years.

The rebels were defeated in May 2009 but there have been allegations that war crimes were committed during final phase of that war. The government's rights record since then has also come in for international criticism.

The elections have been seen by the UN and the world community as an important gauge as to the level of reconciliation between the Tamils and the majority ethnic Sinhalese, who mostly control Sri Lanka's government and military.

The vote went to the heart of how the country should accommodate its ethnic minority who complain of being second class citizens without a say in their own affairs.

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