Tamil party expected to win majority of Jaffna's seats

But how the party will be able to secure the president's support when the latter has ruled out some of those demands is a big question.

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JAFFNA, Sri Lanka // This week's parliamentary elections will mark the first time the main political party of Sri Lanka's Tamil minority will be able to participate in elections without Tamil Tiger rebels breathing down its neck. Still, the campaign resolutions that attract votes remains the same: self-determination, federalism and cohabitation with the majority Sinhalese community.

Even if the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) wins the election, how the party will be able to secure the president Mahinda Rajapaksa's support when the latter has ruled out some of those demands is a big question. The president paid a visit to this former war-battered northern capital last Thursday for an election rally of his United People's Freedom Alliance, but according to most Jaffna residents, the ruling party is unlikely to make a dent in the popular vote, which is clearly heading towards the TNA.

During the rally Mr Rajapaksa said the government was preparing a blueprint for development in the north and the entire country aimed at making Sri Lanka an economic powerhouse in South Asia. "There is a major difference between our demands and that of the LTTE [Tamil Tiger guerrillas] which campaigned for a separate, independent homeland," the TNA candidate and former parliamentarian Suresh Premachandran said in an interview at his office. "The difference between separatism and our demands is that what we are asking is within a united Sri Lanka.

"If the government refuses the wishes of the people, that would lead to more frustrations and then we would have to canvass our demands with the international community." Parliamentary polls are being held across Sri Lanka on Thursday to elect 225 members to the legislature. Jaffna, the capital of the Tamil-dominated north, has nine parliamentary seats with the TNA expected to capture at least seven, while the remaining two may go to the ruling party and the island's main opposition United National Party.

The TNA, an offshoot of the Federal Party, created in the 1950s to campaign for a federal-type regime in the north and the east, is also contesting in the eastern region and Mr Premachandran said it hoped to secure at least 20 seats from both regions. While the north has a dominant Tamil population, the east has a mix of Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims. A senior journalist here, who declined to be named for fear of reprisal, said most people would back the TNA as it has among its ranks many politicians who have been pushing for a federal solution for decades.

During much of the conflict, the rebels influenced the TNA - and its earlier party, the Tamil United Liberation Front - and in the latter stages the party was seen as a proxy of the rebels. The Tamil United Liberation Front won the 1977 parliamentary poll in the northern region including Jaffna on a campaign plank of an independent homeland, winning all 14 parliamentary seats in the region, nine in Jaffna and five in the rest of the north. CVK Sivagnanam, a TNA candidate and a well-respected former municipal commissioner, said the political struggle of the Tamils has come a full circle - from peaceful to violent to peaceful again.

"The militant struggle was globalised and internationalised. While militancy is over, the Tamils now must speak out to carry forward our demands through non-violence," he said in an interview at a small Jaffna hotel. The party is pushing for a merger of the north and the east into a single political and administrative region that has powers over its own land, police, finance, education and health, while defence and foreign affairs remain with the central government.

The president, though, has rejected a merger and homeland concept for the Tamils in the north and east. "Yes, one could say there is no pressure on us now," said Mr Sivagnanam. Though the war is over, nearly 80,000 soldiers are stationed in the north including 40,000 in Jaffna alone, according to Mr Premachandran. "This is because the Sinhalese-dominated government still wants to control here," he said. "We are still under army occupation and have no decision-making authority."