Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Is Sajith slowly pulling ahead as Gota fails to gain traction?

Posted by harimpeiris on November 11, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 08th November 2019)

The 2019 presidential election, rather predictably is shaping up politically, very similar to its precedent in 2015. On that occasion, the then ruling Rajapaksas’ sought an unprecedented third term and was rebuffed at the polls. In 2019, the Rajapaksas’ are essentially seeking a third term, with the personalities changed.

The message though from the Rajapaksa camp has not changed, only increased in intensity. The message that the Sinhala people are under threat both from within and without and require an authoritarian saviour.

Opposing this narrative, rather late in the day and though no fault of his own, is Sajith Premadasa, the charismatic relatively young deputy leader of the UNP, whose political task and challenge is to recreate the politics of 2015 in 2019, with himself as a new standard bearer and with a fresh political vision and message.

Sajith picking up momentum

Sajith Premadasa’s election rallies around the country have been well attended with enthusiastic crowds. Gota is certainly not outperforming Sajith in grassroots mobilization. It is however in the political discourse and in setting the political agenda, that Sajith has succeeded at seriously eroding Gota’s ability to define the issues. With a distinctive political message, which is resonating, Gotabaya has struggled to respond to Sajith. The SLPP sought to craft the campaign along ethno-social and security lines and on anti-incumbency. A campaign designed against Ranil.

However, Sajith came on the scene, adroitly co-opted Field Marshal Fonseka as his security buffer and anchor and took the charge to the Rajapaksa’s on their weakest wicket, that of governance and economic management. The Achilles heel of the Rajapaksa’s is that a sufficient number of Sinhala voters are unimpressed with their economic and political governance performance, especially in their second term. Now in all probability there is a clear anti-incumbency factor against the current government, but it is in recognition of this fact, that neither the current president nor prime minister are candidates for president, though both, right up to the nominations, sought it.

However, Sri Lanka has a sophisticated electorate which understands, that non-delivery is different from bad delivery. Would the swing voters of 2015, forget or ignore, the sacking of a chief justice, jailing your presidential election opponent, a respected army commander to boot, swinging maritime security to a private firm, white van abductions and rampant nepotism. Sajith while campaigning has successfully occupied the moral high ground. It is to his credit that he has reached the apex of the political ladder, as a main party candidate for president with very limited or no significant negatives as political demerits. This is likely to be reflected in the voting patterns of new, young and currently undecided voters, of whom there are many and who likely will be the deciding factor in this election.

The CBK leadership to an anti-Rajapaksa SLFP

The Elpitiya Pradeshiya Sabha election results last month, which seemingly warmed the cockles of SLPP insiders’ hearts should however to the contrary, raise a strong caution for them as well. It is very similar to the Monaragala district results of the Uva Provincial Council elections of October 2014, which the UPFA won and then went on to lose the presidency. There the UPFA polled 56%, about what it polled in Elpitiya and went on to lose the presidential election, though it won in the Monaragala District. For the Rajapaksas’ in 2015 and indeed in 2019, 56% of the Sinhala vote is insufficient to carry the country as a whole, when they exclusively target a mono ethnic Sinhala vote. Of equal importance is the 12% of the Elpitiya electorate which voted for the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).

This hard core SLFP voter, clearly refused to heed the headlong dash of its parliamentary group towards the SLPP and vote Rajapaksa. It remains SLFP, left of center, socially conservative and likely much more attracted to a message of social and political democracy and justice than it is to the allures of the Chinese model of a national security state. It is to this constituency that former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga seeks to give leadership and direction. The prior decision of President Sirisena to remain neutral in the presidential election and not get on the political platform of Gotabaya Rajapaksa is also a tribute and credit to the political acumen and coalition building skills of Sajith Premadasa, who successfully weaned away Sirisena from supporting Gotabaya and subsequently also secured CBK’s overt support.

A political challenge for Gota

The political challenge for Gotabaya Rajapaksa is significant. The SLPP and the Rajapaksa campaign has struggled to extend its base beyond its core Sinhala nationalist constituency. The campaign and the candidate excites, energizes and creates passion among its core support base but is clearly struggling to reach beyond the Sinhala nationalist constituency.

An uninspiring orator and unfamiliar with policy nuances outside of security issues, he has failed to take up the challenge of a candidate’s debate with Sajith Premadasa, a feature in many democracies, including his second home of the USA. The SLPP is failing to sufficiently tap into the anti-incumbency sentiment of the electorate, both due to the association of Gotabaya with the worst excesses of the Rajapaksa regime’s past track record and also because contrary to expectations and miraculously, the UNP working committee accomplished the near impossible and nominated a fresh face, a younger but experienced leader and an authentic grass roots politician untainted by corruption and generally not associated as part of the inner circle of a less than sterling performance in governance during the past five years. Slowly but surely, support is coalescing around Sajith Premadasa.

The JVP are feeling the heat and recognizing that they are losing the floating voter to Sajith, hence their increased attempts to associate him with the current regime. But Sajith played his hand well during the past five years, furiously building houses throughout the country while making no attempt to be seen as close to Ranil. In fact, to the contrary he cleverly kept the required distance from the centre of power. Gota on the other hand needs to bask in his brother’s glory for his political legitimacy and that asset though is also his drawback.

Premadasa looking ahead and casting fresh vision, is slowly but surely consolidating and creating the ground for a surprising come from behind victory.

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Sajith resets the agenda on Sinhala nationalism

Posted by harimpeiris on October 26, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 26th October 2019)

Gotabaya Rajapaksa chose an opportune but inappropriate moment to announce his candidacy for the presidential elections, when in the immediate aftermath of the devastating Easter Sunday bombings, he announced his intention to contest for the presidency. From even before then the network of the organizations promoting his national politics, namely Viyath Maga and Eliya have been quite open about their agenda, that of national security and economic development, the latter along the Chinese agenda and model with high priced Chinese loans. The subtexts of this discourse have been generally anti-minority rhetoric, especially towards the Muslim community.

The UNP were very late entrants into the presidential elections and consequently into a national political discourse of its own. However, young Sajith Premadasa who finally secured the nomination of that grand old party has launched a campaign which seeks to reset the national political agenda. In doing so, he provides Sri Lanka and her voters, with a real choice, a genuine cross road at which the nation can travel in divergent directions.

No overt challenge to Sinhala nationalist dogma

Recognizing that the Rajapakses have been playing and upping the ante on ethnic Sinhala nationalism, Sajith Premadasa makes no attempt to challenge Sinhala nationalist dogma, but he seeks instead to coopt it and redefine it, in his way and style. This is a serious political attempt on his part through the UNP, similar though not identical, to what Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga attempted and succeeded in through the SLFP / PA twenty-five years ago. CBK however, had one and a half years to do it from the 1993 Southern Provincial Council elections through the 1994 presidential elections, Sajith Premadasa, has just one and a half months to do so. But he is gaining traction.

A Sinhala nationalism which is socially equitable and just

Sajith Premadasa, inspired and clearly grounded in the motivational ideology of his late father, has a driving focus on social democracy, justice and equity. He took to public housing, like a duck to water and has a personally impressive track record of deliverables in the past five years, which lay the foundation for a national economy that seeks to strengthen the social safety net, empower the less fortunate and spur the economic productivity and well being of the lower income segments of our society. An economic growth with equity that enhances and strengthens social justice. Sajith argues that this agenda is a crucial aspect of Sinhala nationalism, that a nationalism devoid of justice, equity and democracy, both social and political, actually weakens the Sinhala people and Sri Lanka. The seeds for this argument were actually laid by President Sirisena in 2015, though articulated differently and it may well be the winning argument in 2019 and beyond.

Along the same lines, the Gotabaya Rajapaksa campaign has some serious credibility issues on its development model. The people of Sri Lanka were clearly not impressed by the post war 2009-2014 economic program of the second Rajapaksa term. The Rajapaksa then and now made two arguments, Sinhala nationalism defined as patriotism, national security and sovereignty and economic development. If one accepts the rather self-evident truth, that Sinhala nationalism is alive and indeed thriving, we have to assume that the Rajapaksa lost the 2015 elections on the basis of economic policy and governance, the absence of a peace dividend in the south, the obvious nepotism and the widespread and credible allegations of corruption. With Gotabaya the people can well suspect they would receive more of the same.

A Sinhala nationalism which is inclusive and tolerant

Sajith Premadasa who unabashedly says he is a Sinhala Buddhist nationalist in all his public meetings and model village openings in the minority dominated Northern and Eastern provinces, defines his Sinhala Buddhist nationalism much more along the lines of the ancient Sinhala kings and kingdoms, who while promoting and developing Buddhism was tolerant and inclusive and created the space for a multi ethno religious society to flourish. It was Sinhala kings who enabled Muslim communities to trade freely and flourish in the Eastern Province and elsewhere, who enabled Joseph Vass to preach Christ in Sinhala villages and strengthen the Roman Catholic Church. Sinhala monarchs and monarchies, which understood then, what is surely even more true today, that no man or nation exists as an island alone, but in community with others, both within and without. This is the type, shape and form of nationalism which Sajith Premadasa seeks to define and articulate. Where after the Easter bombings his Ministry of Housing undertook to rebuild in full, the Tamil Pentecostal Zion church in Batticalo and then also visited all the attacked and damaged mosques in the North Western Province, with rebuilding funds, for those affected by organized pogroms. Terror attacks never justify pogroms against a community, not in July 1983 and not in April 2019. Sajith Premadasa understood and practiced that.

The Sinhala nationalist rhetoric emanating from the SLPP’s Pohotuwa campaigns, sounds sadly like its extremist Tamil counterpart rhetoric emanating from a Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam or the transnational government of Tamil Eelam (TGTE). In fact, in its exclusivist ethnic world view, its exclusion of others, its anti-Muslim tendencies and its polarizing effects, the extreme fringes of Sinhala and Tamil nationalism are eerily similar to each other. It is also similar to the extreme right wing, fascist political movements which gained power in Europe prior to the second world war II and whose political progeny are raising their heads if not making a come-back in some parts of Europe. The pre-war fascism of Francisco Franco in Spain, Benito Mussolini Italy and of course the Nazis in Germany. The results of Fascism were devastating for Europe and indeed for much of the world.

Sri Lanka on November 16th, will decide whether we want as a nation to have our own experiment with extreme right wing ethno-religious governance or traverse a different road of social democracy and economic justice and equity.

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Sajith and Gota – A study in contrasts

Posted by harimpeiris on October 15, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 14th October 2019)

Despite the long presidential ballot paper, the real contest for Sri Lanka’s highest office is between Cabinet Minister, Sajith Premadasa contesting from the UNP led National Democratic Front (NDF), under the swan symbol and his challenger from the opposition, former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, contesting from the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), under their symbol, the lotus bud. One of these two would be declared as the President elect of Sri Lanka on 17th November and take the oath of office shortly thereafter. The most interesting of the other also rans, is undoubtedly Anura Kumara Dissanayake, leader of the JVP, who can reasonably be expected to get approximately in the region of 5% to 6% of the popular vote, which the JVP has been polling nationally in recent times. The two main rival political camps in Sri Lanka, have produced two significantly different candidates, to harness their very different constituencies.

A young self-made leader vs the heir of a political dynasty

Sajith Premadasa is a self-made leader in many ways. Though the son of a former president, Sajith entered active politics after his late father’s assassination and not by being groomed by a presidential dad. Shortly thereafter the UNP went into a long period in opposition during the Kumaratunga presidency. Sajith eschewed the easy path of nursing his father’s pocket borough and established political base in Colombo city, believing correctly that this will remain with him and instead built from scratch his political base in rural Hambanthota’ s Sinhala villages, to launch the ultimate challenge to the Medamullane dynasty from Hambanthota itself. At the age of fifty-two (52) years, Sajith Premadasa is by Sri Lankan standards, a youthful presidential candidate and stands in contrast to his seventy (70) year old challenger. Clearly, two decades separate them.

Gotabaya by contrast is very much a creation of his brother’s presidency, best exemplified by the fact that he landed in Sri Lanka after, not before Mahinda won the election as President in 2005 and as recently confirmed by the Supreme Court, resumed his Sri Lankan dual citizenship post-election in 2005, under the hand of his presidential sibling. Gotabaya never nursed an electorate as an organizer, never sat in Cabinet with diverse multi ethnic colleagues, never engaged in democratic debate and discourse in Parliament or indeed elsewhere. Just exercised unchecked power in the shadow of a populist presidential sibling, in the context of a brutal civil war. Gotabaya has a serious democratic deficit, in process, practice and experience.

A squeaky-clean image vs a candidate busy defending himself

It was British peer, Lord Acton, who famously stated that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” and the results of Gotabaya’s wielding of absolute power, with no democratic accountability, for a decade, can be seen in the vast array of legal cases, charges and investigations, in which he was or is a defendant or an accused. The accusations and cases range from the Avant Garde cases and attendant issues to the murder of Lasantha Wickramatunga, the disappearance of Prageeth Ekneligoda and other human rights abuses, the Wickramatunga case pending in US courts. Gotabaya has a serious job to clear his name, especially on the substantive issues and not on a technicality.

Sajith, on the other hand, has had a squeaky-clean image. There have been neither allegations of corruption or rights abuses directed towards Sajith. Even his grassroots politics in Hambanthota and elsewhere, focus very much on the carrot rather than the stick and in what has been the downfall of many a politician in Sri Lanka, has avoided getting his family, relatives and wider clansmen associated with his political life and official duties. Even his campaign is run professionally by UNF leaders, while Gotabaya’s is very much a family affair on key decisions.

A message of hope as opposed to a message of fear or hate

It is however in the political messaging that the campaigns of Sajith Premadasa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa, diverge and contrast most strongly. Sajith’s is a campaign of forward-looking optimism and hope, that is realistic in its self-criticism of the UNP’s very limited delivery of the past five years. In fact, the main reason why Sajith got the UNP’s presidential nomination ahead of party leader Ranil Wickramasinghe, was that the party had to lead its campaign, with somebody not closely related to the past five years track record. The confirmation and affirmation of the role of Field Marshall Sarath Fonseka at Sajith’s inaugural rally, both defined the experience and knowledge which would guide the nation’s national security, in the war ending army commander but also blunted and took away the monopoly on that issue which Gotabaya’s campaign tried to arrogate to themselves. Sajith defines a Sinhala nationalism which is confident of its place in the sun and is generous and accommodative in the traditions of the ancient Sinhala kings and kingdoms, which created the space and opportunity for a multi ethno-religious society to grow and thrive. Gotabaya’s message at its heart though, is one of the Sinhala people being under siege and requiring a strong and perhaps even an undemocratic leadership to protect them from their internal enemies. It is essentially a message which drives us apart, polarizes and creates a deeply divided society.

Economically Sajith’s message of social justice and helping those who need a helping hand, is both more socially democratic and equitable than the protectionist, rent seeking, economic populism of the Chinese model with high priced Chinese loans, which seems to be the model the Rajapaksas favour. Sajith has a short time to share his vision for the country. But as the 60% who did not vote for the SLPP’s Pohotuwa in 2018 or the 52% who voted for the NDF Swan in 2015 looks at the choice before them on November 16th, , the carefully crafted, centrist message of hope and renewal of Sajith Premadasa, stands in stark contrast to the alternative of a militarized, authoritarian Gotabaya rule.

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Sajith unveils a social justice with security platform

Posted by harimpeiris on October 7, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 03rd October 2019)

Sajith Premadasa finally clinched the governing UNP’s nomination for the presidential election through the formal decision of the UNP’s Working Committee and that decision is to be ratified at their annual convention scheduled for 3rd October. The election itself is only a short six weeks away, the Election Commission having issued the gazette for the date of polling as 16th November 2019.

A UNP younger generation takes over

Soon after clinching the nomination, the basic framework of the political pitch and path of Minister and presidential candidate Premadasa are taking shape and it is fascinating to examine not least because in six weeks’ time, it could probably be government policy. Firstly, it is clear that a new younger generation of UNP leaders have finally come to their own within that grand old party. That much like his late father President Ranasinghe Premadasa, succeeded the longtime UNP leadership of President JR Jayawardena, that Sri Lankan history repeats itself thirty years later, when President Jayewardene’s nephew and political heir Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe hands over the baton to Sajith Premadasa, the clear political heir of his late father. While the UNP’s party leadership will remain with Prime Minister Wickramasinghe, presumably for as long as he wants it, it is clear that a new younger generation of leadership has taken over.

Regarding the presidential election contest at barely 52 years of age, Minister Premadasa is almost two decades younger than his 70-year-old opponent from the Rajapakse camp and only the second youngest candidate, where former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was in her forties in the early nineteen nineties.

Social Justice with Security

The foundation of Sajith Premadasa’s political program is the path of social justice and social democracy. Like his late father before him, Sajith Premadasa articulates a vision for a future Sri Lanka, where the top two percentiles of the populations do not receive over half the national income, while the lowest two percentiles, languish at around five percent. A policy focus on investment in human capital and social infrastructure, is articulated to ensure economic growth with social justice.

Candidate Premadasa, the political machine around him, the UNF’s allied other parties and of course his own party the UNP, are exuding confidence. They believe that the election is theirs to lose. The rationale is not hard to see. The Rajapaksa’s and their political machine in 2015 lost the presidential and the subsequent parliamentary elections despite high doses of Sinhala nationalism and unabashed abuse of state power and resources. The political formulae of 2015 was Rajapakse verses the rest. Candidate Premadasa recognizes that the opposition and his chief rival Gotabaya Rajapakse is clearly following an electoral strategy of solely targeting the Sinhala Buddhist voter. It would be impossible to eat into Rajapaksa’s voter base by being more Sinhala Buddhist nationalist than the Rajapaksa’s and also simultaneously appeal to other communities. It’s a political tight rope walk requiring a careful political balance and Premadasa seems to relish the challenge. To win candidate Premadasa must wean off a small section of the Rajapakse support base and then unify the rest of the electorate baring the JVP’s 5% of the national vote. The UNP voter base has historically been more ethnically and religiously diverse, than its opponents and the UNP even at its low points was still winning parliamentary representation from Jaffna District in their own right and always electing UNP Muslim members.

A track record to go by

Minister Sajith Premadasa is clearly pitching his track record as a member of Parliament and as a Minister of Housing as an indicator and track record that people can trust. He correctly and clearly claims that his ministry has been run without family bandyism and involving his relatives in his government work, while his housing schemes and ministerial programs have been implemented without fear or favor including large swathes of it in the former conflict areas of the Northern and Eastern provinces. He is also, again rather like his father somewhat of a workaholic and is and has been extremely hard working as a minister. He is likely to be a very hands on president, ably assisted by the team around him.

Politically Candidate Premadasa senses the weaknesses in his principal opponent in terms of the lack of political experience and the negative aspects of his opponent’s track record. The Defense Ministry is not the place where you learn to consult and compromise to reach consensus, an essential feature in a democracy and a trait very visibly lacking in his opponent’s campaign and camp. Most recently it was SLFP stalwart from the Kalutara District Kumara Welgama who again mentioned his fear about the return of the white van culture, while slain newspaper editor Lasantha Wickrematunge’s daughter has initiated legal proceedings against Gotabaya Rajapakse in US courts.

The Rajapaksa’s through the SLPP secured about 40% of the national vote in the February 2018 election. But the political sheen and ascendency of the Rajapaksa political machine was clearly severely dented by the failed constitutional coup and the short lived third Mahinda Rajapakse government of 52 days, a prime minster who never once stepped into Parliament and lost the first of several no confidence votes within days of being appointed. So the conventional wisdom would have it, that the election is currently a tie within the statistical margin of error, between the UNP nominee Minister Sajith Premadasa, set to contest under the Swan symbol and banner of the National Democratic Front and the SLPP nominee of the former defense secretary and brother number two Gotabaya Rajapakse, with the election likely to be decided by the large number of uncommitted and undecided voters.

Somehow one gets the feel, that Sajith Premadasa is the centrist and moderate candidate who will be the pick of the currently undecided and uncommitted voters who will be the deciding factor in the November election.

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TNA and late attempt to abolish Executive Presidency

Posted by harimpeiris on September 25, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 23rd September 2019)

At the tail end of the term of office of Maithripala Sirisena as President and after the independent Elections Commission had called nominations for election to the office of president, a special cabinet meeting was summoned last week to discuss the issue of Government support for the JVP’s proposed 20th Amendment to the constitution, which sought to abolish the executive presidency. While late in the president’s term and better late than never, the timing of the initiative in the heat of the nomination battle reduced elite support for the proposal. However, while much debate has ensured whether Cabinet was summoned by the President or the Prime Minister, the timing was an exploration as to whether the three leaders in Sri Lanka, Maithri, Ranil and Mahinda, may well find it in their political interests to abolish the executive presidency and fight it out for the post of Prime Minister next year, an arena in which they are all entitled and well able to. The substantive issue however was the joint effort of the JVP as the initiators of the 20th Amendment and the TNA as the drivers for constitutional reform in Sri Lanka, including the crucial reform or abolition of the executive presidency.

A consensus since 1994

The issue of abolishing the executive presidency, first introduced by J.R. Jayewardena in the second republican constitution of 1978, arose after just three terms when by the 1994 presidential election, then candidate Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, swore to seek the abolition of the executive presidency and reform what she pithily terms in Sinhala, the “bahu butha viyawasthawa” loosely translated as the constitution of many demons, the chief offender being the centralized power in the executive president and the consequent weakening of other institutions of government. President Kumaratunga did her share of the work to keep her word, introducing a draft new constitution to Parliament, in August 2000, and her government with a single seat majority, after UNP crossovers, came just eight votes short of securing the required a two-thirds majority. Back then in 2000, the TNA, due to death threats by the LTTE on TNA leaders, well remembering the supreme price paid by their predecessors from Appaapilai Amirthalingam to Neelan Tiruchelvam, refused to support the measure. If they had, Sri Lanka’s recent history would have been quite different. For the past two decades since the year 2000, both the Mahinda Chinthanaya and the public mandated manifesto of President Maithripala Sirisena have pledged to abolish the executive presidency. Mahinda Rajapaksa cynically went in the opposite direction to his own pledges and further strengthened the executive presidency by abolishing term limits through the 18th amendment, while on the contrary President Maithripala Sirisena’s crowning glory, which he paradoxically seemingly rues now, is the 19th amendment, which significantly reduced the powers of the presidency, making it a semi-executive presidency.

The TNA support for the 2015 mandate

Nationalist elements in both the Sinhala and Tamil polities have been attacking the TNA and its seeming strategy of working within and defending the mandate of 2015, using terminology such as UNP proxy about the TNA. They aim much of their ire on the TNA’s human rights and constitutional law expert MA Sumanthiran, who stands head and shoulders above the younger Tamil leaders and the only one with a non-militant past. The TNA was decisive in the Rajapaksa defeat, beginning with the defeat of the “Divi Neguma” bill in the Eastern Provincial Council, then staunchly defending the consequently sacked Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranaike, with Sumanthiran as her lead counsel and finally, in January 2015, ensuring that the 750,000 majority for Maithripala Sirisena, erased his deficit in the other provinces to enable him to win the election. Again, in October 2018, when the constitutional coup was launched and Mahinda Rajapaksa made his short-lived return through the political backdoor as it were, the TNA was the kingmaker in parliament and instrumental in swinging the balance of power towards embattled and unconstitutionally sacked Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe. For this staunch commitment to the moderate centre, the TNA and Sumanthiran has been labelled pro-UNP. However, the TNA is actually pro, a set of pragmatic political principles, while representing an ethnic minority as a regional political party. The abolition of the executive presidency is one such pragmatic principle. A political position that has much support in the country, irrespective of ethnicity, requiring every successful president since 1994, to pledge a commitment to abolishing or at least radically reforming that office. The TNA has quite wisely and correctly decided that Tamil rights can be ensured within a staunchly democratic (and indeed undivided) Sri Lanka and to that end promote efforts to strengthen and develop Sri Lankan democracy, which even Sinhala politicians would concede require much improvement. Any democratic and free society, requires a constant safeguarding of its citizens democratic, human rights and freedoms.

The JVP and the TNA, as effective left and regional parties

The JVP, with about 6% of the national vote and the TNA with a little less, are both very effective as a moderate and centre force in Sri Lankan national politics. Together, they combine to make a decisive 10% or more of the national electorate and though their voice is not amplified by a mass media prone to highlight nationalist voices, for readership and viewership purposes, they are significant political players in their own right in national life and the two major political blocs have to deal with that reality, which their leaders well understand. The UNP, understands and internalizes this much more than the SLPP / SLFP since the UNP support base is more diverse and less ethno centric. The JVP has come a long way since its two armed insurrections and the passing of the leadership from the old school and discredited past of Somawansa Amarasinghe to the younger generation of Anura Kumara Dissanayake saw the JVP’s best ever national electoral effort in February 2018, giving it the political courage to both introduce the 20th Amendment to the constitution and to run their leader for president.

The TNA’s decade long, post war, political journey has been equally if not more impressive. Led by the veteran Rajavarothian Sambanthan, the ITAK with its TNA allies mostly in toe, now sans the EPRLF (Suresh faction), adroitly moved into the political vacuum created by the demise of the LTTE and relatively established itself as a player in Sri Lankan national politics. Tamil nationalist voices, ensconced in either Jaffna or in isolated pockets in the Diaspora have disingenuously and have somewhat unkindly questioned as to what the TNA has achieved for the Tamil people, after a decade of democratic politics, from 2009 to 2019. However, these same voices never use the same yardstick to question as what three decades of armed struggle from 1983 to 2009, achieved or did not achieve for the Tamil people, especially an armed struggle that finally rejected power sharing and democracy including dissent and the rights of a child.

With the JVP running its third-party presidential candidacy and hence moving the left vote away from being decisive at the presidential election, the TNA’s command and sway over the Tamil vote in the North and East, like in 2015 may well end up being decisive in the 2019 presidential election. In the parliament to be elected in 2020, again like in 2015, in a close and potentially hung Parliament, the TNA votes may be crucial in deciding who the next Prime Minister of Sri Lanka would be. It was Wimal Weerawansa who in the year 2000, then as JVP spokesman, famously coined the phrase, the political remote control, meaning decision making power, was in their hands. Since 2015, we may well be in a medium-term situation where the remote controlled has moved away, from the JVP to the TNA, or at least at a minimum, it is shared between the two parties. It is a good check and balance on overreach and extremist tendencies by either of the two major political parties in Sri Lanka.

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