A polling station officer carries a ballot box with a police officer as they walk into the main counting center after the first provincial polls in 25 years in Jaffna, a former war zone in northern Sri Lanka, about 250 miles north of Colombo. (Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters)

Ethnic Tamils in Sri Lanka’s war-ravaged­ north voted Saturday to form their first functioning provincial government, in hopes it will be the first step toward wider regional autonomy and a cornerstone to prevent another cycle of violence.

Tamils fought for self-rule for more than six decades after the country gained independence, first through a peaceful struggle and then through a bloody civil war, but failed.

Saturday’s elections, however, are expected to give them a limited say in their own affairs — a taste of democracy after decades under rebel or military control.

Polls closed Saturday evening, and results are expected by Sunday afternoon. No major violence was reported, but election monitors reported that army soldiers and pro-government party members stood near polling stations and threatened voters.

The elections are seen by the United Nations and the world community as a crucial test of reconciliation between the Tamils and the majority ethnic Sinhalese, who control Sri Lanka’s government and military.

“Our political problems must be resolved,” Rasathurai Balasubramanium, a 56-year-old mason, said after voting in his village, Thavadi. “Another generation must not be destroyed.”

The country’s ethnic divisions widened with the quarter-century civil war that ended in 2009 when government troops crushed the Tamil Tiger rebels, who were fighting to create an independent state.

At least 80,000 people were killed in the war, and northern cities, including many on the Jaffna peninsula, were reduced to rubble.

The Tamil National Alliance, considered a political proxy for the Tamil rebels during the conflict, was favored to win the elections and fielded a former Supreme Court justice, C.V. Wigneswaran, as its chief candidate.

More than 700,000 voters were registered to elect 36 members to the provincial council, although voter turnout was not immediately known.

The provincial council, however, will not have much power. A governor appointed by the central government retains almost all of the control, and Wigneswaran said that if elected, his party would lobby for wider self-rule based on federalism.

The central government is against devolving such wide powers and says even existing powers in provincial hands, such as those over land and policing, are a threat to the country. It hopes to win over Tamils by rebuilding roads, schools, hospitals and other infrastructure destroyed in the war.

But residents said the army is taking over large swaths of private land to build camps and even businesses such as hotels, and bringing in Sinhalese people to change the province’s ethnic breakdown.

Angajan Ramanathan, a 30-year-old businessman and the leading candidate for President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party, said working close to the government will bring more benefits to the war-ravaged community.

Campaigning had been marked by sporadic attacks and threats, mainly against Tamil Alliance supporters.

In the latest incident, an election monitor said soldiers armed with clubs attacked supporters of Tamil Alliance candidate Ananthi Sasitharan at the candidate’s home late Thursday, wounding eight people. Sasitharan, the wife of a former Tamil Tiger rebel leader, escaped unharmed.

— Associated Press