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Intra-Ethnic Electoral Violence in War-Torn, Divided Societies: The Case of Sri Lanka


What form does electoral violence take in war-torn divided societies, and what explains the variation in this type of violence? Using statistical and historical analyses, this study examines patterns of election-related violence in the war-torn, ethnically divided context of Sri Lanka. This study shows that electoral violence in Sri Lanka is more often the result of inter-party and intra-ethnic competition than it is the result of inter-ethnic rivalries. Since most Sri Lankan districts are ethnically homogeneous and because the Sinhalese constitute the vast majority of the population, most electoral competition occurs between rival Sinhalese parties. Specifically, this dissertation demonstrates the significance of inter-party competition within one ethnic group by showing that there was generally more violence in areas where the vote differences between the top two contenders were smallest, even when both were from the same ethnic group. This holds when comparing violence with the vote difference from the previous election cycle as well. When vote differences were small in the previous election, there was more violence in the following election in that district.

In order to illustrate the intra-ethnic nature of much of the violence, I describe the planned, systematic and organized nature of the violence, which indicates that violence was not a spontaneous outburst of inter-ethnic animosity. Instead, it was planned - sometimes by politicians themselves - in order to harm rivals' chances of victory. In addition, this analysis shows that there was more violence in heavily Sinhalese and heavily Tamil districts than in more mixed ones. This pattern indicates that most electoral competition at the district level was likely occurring within ethnic communities, between parties representing the same ethnic groups. In addition, most violence took place between supporters of the two main Sinhalese parties, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP). In terms of accusations, both Sinhalese and Tamil parties accused their co-ethnic parties of much more violence than they did parties of the other ethnicities, suggesting that much more violence took place within rather than between these groups.

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