Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • May 2018
    M T W T F S S

A diversification in Tamil politics evidenced through the recent polls

Posted by harimpeiris on May 14, 2018

By Harim Peiris

(Published in The Island of 26th April 2018)


Tamil politics in Sri Lanka has been changing during the past decade. The epic change of course occurring nearly nine years ago, when the near thirty years, long armed conflict ended with the complete military defeat of the LTTE and the pre-militant era traditional Tamil political elite, through the Illankai Tamil Arasu Katchi led TNA, adroitly moved into the political space vacated by the demise of the LTTE and dominated Tamil politics for the post war decade from 2009 to 2018. The dominance of Tamil politics by the TNA, led by the veteran Rajavarothian Sambanthan, currently the leader of the opposition and a political gentleman of the old school, would have been the envy of most democratic political leaders, so complete was the TNA’s democratic grip on the Tamil electorate. The TNA polled well above seventy five percent among their constituencies in the North and East. That political monopoly has clearly ended as demonstrated by February’s local government elections, when the TNA’s voter base declined from the over five hundred thousand it polled at the August 2015 elections to little over three hundred thousand, this time around. An analysis of where the other two hundred thousand Tamil voters, cast their votes provide an interesting insight into the changes in Tamil politics and Tamil public opinion.


Firstly, the TNA and its dominant party, the ITAK remains the preeminent Tamil political party in Sri Lanka, with an equal presence in both the Northern and Eastern provinces, being equally at home in both provinces, a feat which no other Tamil political party comes even near matching. However, it does now have new kids on the block it needs to deal with, within the Tamil polity itself and the importance of this dynamic for Sri Lanka’s post war reconciliation process, means this is an issue of national interest.


The most visible challenge to the TNA, comes from the traditional rival or the old nemesis of the ITAK, namely the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC), long dominated by the Ponnambalam family and currently led by the scion of that family, the now no longer young Gajen Ponnambalam. The ACTC has consistently been criticizing the policy of constructive engagement of the Southern polity, that the TNA has been pursuing since the end of the war. It is in the North what the Wimal Weerawansa led NFF is in the South, with extreme views, intolerance of diversity and vitriolic speeches with barely concealed racism. At the recent elections, they were effective articulators of grievances, though offering no solutions. They successfully peddled despair and hopelessness among the Tamil community to take away about one third of the votes the TNA lost in the North. Their attraction though was to the remnants of Jaffna’s middle class, the Vellalar belt as one commentator called it, a middle class, who flirted with the dogmas of a dangerous and violent past. They made no impression in the East and most interestingly their message of an extremist, exclusive Tamil nationalism had no attraction in the former Tiger country of Killinochchi and Mullativu either, where they made little electoral impact.


For the TNA, the temptation to go behind the ACTC’s votes by shifting its own politics to a more hardline approach would be natural but it is noteworthy that the TNA only a third of its loss was to the ACTC. The real story lies, in how the other nearly one hundred and fifty thousand Tamils who voted ITAK in August 2015, voted in February 2018. The other big winner especially in the North was the EPDP of Douglas Devananda, that great survivor in Tamil politics, who also polled almost as many votes as the ACTC did. Further the second largest vote getter in Killinochchi, the Independent Group led by Chandra Kumar, is in fact an EPDP last minute breakaway, led by Mr. Chandra Kumar, the EPDP’s man in Killinochchi breaking ranks with Douglas to field his own independent list. It is noteworthy that in the former LTTE heartland of Killinochchi, the man the LTTE relentlessly tried to kill and called a traitor, now polls so well. Similarly, in the Eastern Province, in Batticalo, the TNA was closely challenged by the TMVP of former Chief Minister and Karuna Wing Intelligence head Pillayan. The other noteworthy aspect of the Northern poll, was that some Tamils in the Vanni, especially in Mannar but also in Vavuniya, were voting for Minister Rishard Bathurdeen’s party, an interesting shift of Tamils voting for Muslims, anathema for the extreme Tamil nationalists.  Conversely some Muslim votes in Jaffna came to the TNA. So interestingly the TNA finds that of the Tamil votes it lost to other parties only one third was lost to the more Tamil nationalist ACTC and the majority of the votes it lost, even fact a convincing two thirds of the votes lost, were in fact, lost to the EPDP, the TMVP, the EPDP breakaway Independent group and the Muslim People’s Congress.


There is only one common feature about the various regional Tamil parties, the Muslim party and the independent groups that siphoned off support from the TNA, they had all worked hard on the ground post war to deliver real life solutions, such as jobs, housing, various community infrastructure to their war affected constituents. The TNA while having the Parliamentary group correctly focused on the politics and reform process based in Colombo and totally failed to deliver solutions to people through the Northern Provincial Council. Arguably this was not the fault of the TNA leadership, the idiosyncrasies of Chief Minister Wigneswaren was not really their fault, the maverick judge being a poor administrator and an even worse war recovery visionary. That the Northern Provincial Council has pretty much expended its entire first term of office, doing nothing other than passing empty motions that resonated nowhere except among ACTC supporters and the LTTE remnants in the Diaspora will go down in history as another missed opportunity of the Tamil political leadership. Perhaps it was a recognition that this situation cannot continue, which prompted TNA’s Sumanthiran to state that Chief Minister Wigneswaren, who initially said he will only serve for two years and then retire (have we heard similar sentiments elsewhere?) should not be the TNA nominee for Chief Minister at the next NPC elections due later this year.


The lesson then for the TNA is perhaps, having finally though with a vastly reduced majority won control of most of the local government bodies in the North and East, absolutely do need to deliver real solutions to people’s everyday needs and war recovery efforts. The newly elected TNA controlled TNA local government bodies cannot continue to be another white elephant like the Chief Minister Wigneswaren provincial administration. Otherwise the TNA will continue to bleed support, while those who are active in providing real life solutions to the community will prosper at the polls.


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