Southern Province is an important battleground in Sri Lankan politics. It consists of three districts, Galle, Matara and Hambatota and has a population of nearly 2.5 million. While Hambantota District is the smallest in population, it is a significant district in politics. It is the stronghold of President Mahinda Rajapaksa as well as the United National Party (UNP) Parliamentarian Sajith Premadasa. Furthermore, it is the stronghold of the leftist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) or the People’s Liberation Front.
In 1988, the first Provincial Council Elections were held under a volatile political situation. The main opposition, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) was boycotting the election against the provincial council system introduced through the Indo-Lanka Accord of July 1987. Meanwhile the JVP had launched an insurgency and given that the Southern Province was its stronghold, the JVP had the means to carry out its writ in a large area in the province. It had threatened voters with death and at certain places it assassinated those who participated in the polls.
The first election for the Southern Provincial election was won by the UNP in June 1988. SM Amarasiri became the first Chief Minister. Meanwhile, BY Thudawe who contested from the United Socialist Alliance (USA), a leftwing coalition of several parties, became the first opposition leader.
Five years later, a new political alliance had been formed to challenge the UNP regime before the elections. Meanwhile, several influential leaders had split from the UNP, forming the Democratic United National Front (DUNF). The Southern Province election in 1993 saw the UNP winning 27 seats including the two bonus seats. However, the PA and the DUNF, with 22 and 6 seats respectively, could command a majority together. Therefore, the UNP lost power in the Provincial Council.
This led to the “Franciscu Affair”, an attempt by the UNP to change the balance of the Provincial Council. At the time of the budget speech, a councilor named Wimal Fransiscu was abducted. Without the majority, the Provincial Council fell. However, the subsequent election in 1994 was won outright by the PA (DUNF had joined the PA by that time). PA won 32 seats with the 2 bonus seats while the UNP was reduced to 23 seats. Mahinda Yapa Abeywardene became the Chief Minister.
Five years later, the 1999 Southern Provincial Council Election was held on June 10. At this time, the popularity of the JVP, which had returned to mainstream politics, was rising while the PA government was becoming increasingly unpopular. The Southern Province election reflected this since the PA fell to 27 seats (including the bonus seats) and UNP was reduced to 20 seats. The JVP won 8 seats and received one fifths of the votes in Hambantota District. Mahinda Yapa Abeywardene remained as the Chief Minister. However, when he was elected to the parliament in 2001, HG Sirisena became the Chief Minister.
The next election for Southern Provincial Council was held five years later on July 10, 2004, just after a general election. The turnout was just over 55 percent, and the United People’s Freedom Alliance (an alliance of PA and JVP) swept the polls. The UPFA won 36 seats, an almost 2/3 majority while the UNP was reduced to 19 seats. Shan Wijayalal de Silva became the Chief Minister.
The 2009 Southern Provincial Election was held in extremely favorable conditions to the UPFA, despite the fact that JVP had left the alliance. The conclusion of the war in May 2009 meant that the government was extremely popular. In the election held in October 2009, the turnout was much better than 2004 at nearly 70 percent. Two thirds of the votes polled were received by the UPFA and it gained a 2/3 majority in the council with 38 seats. The UNP was reduced to 14 seats while the JVP won just three seats, much less than what they had won in 1999, when it had contested alone. Shan Wijayalal de Silva remained the Chief Minister of the province.
In the 2014 election, the UPFA will hope to repeat its performance. The JVP will be hoping for a better performance under a new leadership. Since the three main parties have their strongholds in the province, southern Provincial Council Elections will be an interesting encounter under any circumstances.