Sri Lanka: To make the ‘Tamil vote’ count again

N Sathiya Moorthy,  1 June 2018

No one is talking about it as yet, at least not as much. However, everyone is thinking about it, and strategizing for it. The Presidential poll is much more than a year away, but that is now in everyone’s mind – the political class, that is. So, what if the Government and governance issues take a back-seat! If anyone is talking about ‘governance issues’ any more, it is only in the modern-day context of levelling corruption charges against one another – and try make at least a part of it stick. Nothing more, nothing less, that is.

If one went by the results of Elections-2015, the ‘Tamil vote’ along with the ‘Muslim vote’ was the deciding factor, yes. There can be no two opinions about it. But there is a difference. Despite internal splits, the Muslim vote is identifiable with one or the other of the major Sinhala political grouping. It’s so with the otherwise ignored Upcountry Tamil vote, again divided among political parties that often align with one or the other of the ‘Big Two’ Sinhala parties. Now after the arrival of the ‘SLPP-JO’, there are three Sinhala parties for the Muslim and Upcountry Tamil polity and voters to choose from. Indications are neither of the group is likely to go with the SLPP-JO, precisely for the reason that it is also the single largest Sinhala-Buddhist electoral grouping.

Coming Presidential polls, and add, if you want, the five per cent JVP vote-share to the SLPP’s 41 per cent from the February Local Government polls, and the Muslims and the Upcountry Tamils may have perceptions of worry than  support for the SLPP-JO, whose candidate could be a Rajapaksa yet. It could be Gota R, going by present indications though that is not conclusive as of today.

Lower vote-share

The same cannot be said of the vociferous ‘Sri Lankan Tamil’ (SLT) community and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has been giving political leadership and direction to the community, post-war, post-LTTE. The combine proved its worth as a political entity in the twin elections of 2015, when it got its way with the Tamil voters.

Thus, the Presidential polls in January that year made history when the Tamil votes went to defeat incumbent war-victor incumbent in President Mahinda Rajapaksa. In the Parliamentary polls, later that year, the TNA re-established its unassailable supremacy over the Tamil votes in the North and the East. But it was not so in the LG polls three years later, in February 2018. The Party has lost substantial vote-shares, especially to other Tamil parties, going beyond the traditional opponent the EPDP.

According to researcher Ahilan Kadirgamar’s published analysis of the LG polls in the North, in the “Jaffna district where a majority of the population of the Northern Province resides, the TNA saw a considerable decline with only 35 per cent of the vote-share”. The rival Ceylon Tamil Congress – Tamil National People’s (CTC –TNPF) Front made considerable gains, capturing 21 per cent of the votes. The EPDP with an oppressed caste base also made a good showing with 19 per cent.

Kadirgamar’s analysis further shows that in the predominantly Tamil districts of Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu, the TNA got 47 per cent and 42 per cent respectively. Both the TNPF and EPDP in those districts received only five per cent of the votes. However, Chandrakumar who had broken away from the EPDP a year ago, made an impressive showing leading independent groups, which as a whole got 30 per cent of the votes in Killinochchi.

Likewise, the “results in Mannar, with a multi-religious politics of Christians, Muslims and Hindus, and in Vavuniya with the Sinhala constituencies, was more complicated. In those districts, the TNA got 28 per cent and 26 per cent, respectively. The national parties (read: Sinhala-Buddhist majority), including the UNP, SLFP and SLPP, made considerable gains in these districts with close to 50 per cent of the vote-share. These national parties also polled about 10 per cent, 15 per cent and 30 per cent of the votes in Kilinochchi, Jaffna and Mullaitivu, respectively,” Kadirgamar further said in his post-poll analysis.

The question thus is this: Can the TNA make a difference to the Presidential poll results one more time, or the Tamil vote itself could do it. Truth to be acknowledged, in the maiden post-war Presidential polls of 2010, the TNA did ensure that the Tamils voted against Mahinda R, that too in favour of an unlikely candidate for the community to back.

The Joint Opposition candidate Sarath Fonseka was the war-time Army Commander, and the TNA and the Tamils backed him. Yet, he lost. The victor, Rajapaksa, polled the second highest vote-share, 57 per cent. Next only to his one-time SLFP boss, Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga’s highest-ever 62 per cent. The Muslims voted with Rajapaksa, so did most Upcountry Tamil voters, leave alone the post-war ‘swing’ in his favour from among the majority Sinhala-Buddhist voters as well.

Does it mean that the Muslim and Upcountry Tamil votes mattered more in the final results, at least in the past two Presidential polls, than the Sri Lankan Tamil votes and the TNA that delivered it on both occasions? If that were the case, where does the SLT as a community and the TNA as their self-appointed ‘sole political representative’ stand in terms of being able to demand and get what they wanted – or, could honourably settle for – in terms of a political solution now, ahead of the next Presidential polls?

Sole representative

The reference to the ‘sole representative’ status of the TNA cannot be over-looked. In its time, the LTTE had asked to be declared and such declaration acted upon. Post-war, the TNA insisted on being treated as such in political negotiations initiated by the Rajapaksa Government, which did not go anywhere, however.

At the time, the Rajapaksa strategists felt that they should not be seen as sidelining war-time loyalists like EPDP’s Douglas Devananda in exclusive favour of the adversarial TNA from the past, yes. Today, it is a different ball-game. Post-LG polls the TNA is seen no more as the ‘sole representatives’ of all Tamil voters. It will remain so until after the TNA had restored its status, as such.

The Presidential polls will be the early occasion for the world to take note of the TNA’s possible resurgence as the ‘sole representative’ of the community, or something closer to that. If, however, the Government decides to hold the Northern Provincial polls due in November this year, it will be an early, though not a full-chance, in this regard.
In the context of political negotiations for ethnic peace, it does not matter beyond a point as to which Tamil party or combine gets to rule the Northern Province again. It is more about who has the clout to dictate terms to the ‘Sinhala-Buddhist’ majority, in terms of Presidential elections and Parliamentary majority – including the ‘denial clause’.

Drastic dip

The LG polls saw the TNA’s vote-share dip drastically in the Northern Province. This despite the fact that in the earlier Parliamentary polls of August 2015, the Party’s rebel Chief Minister C V Wigneswaran’s call for a ‘conscience vote’ did not produce any significant dent on the TNA’s electoral performance, or seat-share. It is obvious that the TNA is disinclined to field Wigneswaran again as the chief ministerial candidate of the Alliance. But he has already declared an intention to contest alone. In the company of a majority of TNA members of the NPC, he may still end up making an impact that affects the Alliance’s vote-share, seat-share and national standing. Then, there is the EPDP, which helped the TNA retain more than self-respect post-LG polls by extending support in Mayoral elections in individual LG bodies.

The question is if this were to repeat in the PC polls, the TNA’s standing ahead of the Presidential polls too can nose-dive – how far would still be a question. It is not about the TNA retaining the NPC under another chief ministerial candidate – probably, veteran ITAK President, Maavai Senathirajah. In the context of the Presidential polls, the vote-share and the TNA’s power at ‘transferability’ would matter even more.

Even without it, the two or three-way Tamil vote-share could continue the same way in the Presidential polls unless the TNA acknowledges the EPDP as a future poll partner. It can mean that an anti-EPDP section from within the TNA could walk out – and may even join the un-emergent Wigneswaran tie-up with Gajan Ponnambalam’s CTC-TNPF combine.

There is no denying the Tamil public perception that the dual leadership of the present Government has one more for the community than the Rajapaksas, especially in terms of restoring confidence, and also a sense of safety and security, more so, freedom of movement, expression, and everything else. There is no midnight knock on the door, no fear of such midnight knocks.

For this, the shared credit should go to SLFP President Maithripala Sirisena and UNP Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. It is not unlikely that they would have done it even without the TNA’s prodding them through the past years – and the Tamil voters are not unaware of it. What these voters want from the TNA through the Government, or the other way round, is a political solution on the one hand and jobs and incomes, on the other.

Then there is another crucial question. Granted that the Tamils won’t vote in the Rajapaksas, by whatever name and shade called, who will they choose between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe, if the two were to contest the Presidential polls, separately, on their own. It is another matter, if Sirisena, for instance, were to retire from the contest and active politics. But if both were to be in the fray, whom can the TNA choose and what justification can they offer?

There is the sharper question on the guarantee that unconvinced sections of Tamil voters would not stay away from the booths on polling day, granting that they too would not vote a Rajapaksa still. The last time the LTTE caused a wholesale boycott of Tamil votes (as against any future possibility now) was when M Rajapaksa won Elections-2005, and became President.

No marks for guessing, why.

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