Sri Lanka's main ethnic minority Tamil party secured a landslide victory in a provincial poll that has threatened 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 Tamil Tiger rebels, 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 dampen 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 Tamils have fought unsuccessfully for six decades -- through a peaceful struggle and then the bloody civil war -- for self-rule.
The elections are seen by the United Nations and the world community as a test of reconciliation between the Tamils and the majority ethnic Sinhalese, who control Sri Lanka's government and military.
Rajapaksa announced the election after much international criticism that he had delayed fulfilling wartime promises to share power with the minority Tamils. And the largely successful carrying out of the election could deflect some pressure off the government ahead of a meeting of Commonwealth country leaders in Colombo in November.
The government has rejected international complaints that it has not thoroughly investigated alleged war crimes committed by its troops, especially at the end of the war when, according to a U.N. report, they may have killed 40,000 Tamil civilians. The Tigers have also been accused of widespread war crimes, including forced recruiting of child soldiers.
The election result also suggests that a vast majority of voters prefer self-rule over Rajapaksa's effort to win them over through infrastructure development.
However, the provincial council is largely powerless and the new government led by former Supreme Court Justice C.V. Wigneswaran will have to contend with a center-appointed governor who will control most of the council's affairs, which is likely to cause rifts between the provincial and central governments.
But the two-thirds majority on the provincial council means Wigneswaran can follow through with his threat to call for a no-confidence vote against the governor -- a retired military officer -- whom he has accused of usurping power from the national government.
Wigneswaran also said before the vote that winning the election would give his administration the public backing to lobby for wider powers based on federalism.
But he will have to face a two-pronged challenge from Colombo, unwilling to part with any power, and an influential expatriate Tamil lobby insisting that the party work for total independence.
The central government is against devolving any substantial power and says even existing powers in provincial hands, such as those over land and policing, are a threat to the country.
The government has accused the TNA of renewing calls for a separate state through its push for the devolution of power. The TNA says it wants devolution inside a united Sri Lanka, not a separate state.
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.
Some voters have also called for a separate state, for decades 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 complaints 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 of any sort.
Rajapaksa has a majority of more than two-thirds in the national parliament and controls the eight other provinces.
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 and Rajapaksa in July ordered an inquiry into mass disappearances, mostly of Tamils, at the end of the war.
Al Jazeera and wire services