Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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The TNA’s role as the real opposition in national politics

Posted by harimpeiris on January 8, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published online in the Island on 3rd January 2019)

It has to be back to the drawing boards for the SLPP and the Joint Opposition (JO) after their roller coaster ride (no pun intended) of a very brief spell as a Government which never commanded the confidence of Parliament during its very short tenure. Consequently, they were forced to accept the status quo ante which existed before their assumption of office on the 26th October 2018. The significant political change which has occurred since then of course, is that President Sirisena, if not the entirety of the UPFA / SLFP he leads has decided to throw in its lot with former President Rajapakse. However, this formal political divorce of the UNP and the SLFP partners of the supremely badly named “unity” government, was a long time in the making. A strained political partnership for quite a while now, the estrangement may well have had its origins as early as late 2015 itself.

So, there is a clear political gain for former President Rajapakse, in that he has now secured a partnership with the executive president, who almost unbelievably ousted him from office four years ago. How much of the SLFP’s remaining support base of twelve (12%) will shift to Rajapakse due to the president’s actions remain questionable, as does the appetite of some of its other key leaders and members of Parliament, who believe they have no political future with another Rajapakse led dispensation. However, former President Rajapakse and the Joint Opposition (JO), it is a serious downgrade that their leader, after struggling for the premiership for several weeks with Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe, now finds himself in a tussle for the much less exalted position of Leader of the Opposition in Parliament. It is also ironic because in the past, the pun of being an eternal opposition leader and quite comfortable in that government paid and supported post was made by UPFA / SLFP activists about Premier Wickramasinghe due to his very long spell in that office. They now find their new ally struggling for this same position in Parliament.

The Leader of the Opposition appointed after the August 2015 General Elections, veteran politician Rajavarothian Sambanthan has not just rolled over made way. He has through ITAK Spokesman MA Sumanthiran, made an appeal to the Speaker of Parliament, that Mahinda Rajapakse having joined the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, very publicly after the now nullified dissolution of Parliament by the president has vacated and lost his seat in that august assembly by virtue of Article 99 (13) (a) of the Constitution, which stipulates that a Member of Parliament ceases to be a member of the party from which he or she was elected, he ceases to be a member of Parliament. Further the TNA contends, that President Sirisena, who is also the leader of the UPFA, opting to retain the Ministries of Mahaweli Development and Environment, besides the mandatory ministry of Defense, makes it impossible for the UPFA to both have the Head of Government and Head of Cabinet through its leader, President Sirisena and the leader of the opposition to also a UPFA member of Parliament. The merits of these claims are asked to be decided through a select committee of parliament and a motion to convene such a select committee has already been tabled. This analysis though will look at the role as a national opposition which the TNA has played.

TNA as a national opposition

The TNA is clearly boxing way above its weight class in national politics. The Sri Lankan State system, by accident or design may well have inflicted injustices on the Tamil people, but political representation in the center is not one of them. By virtue of the concentration of its support base within several districts of the Northern and Eastern provinces of the country, the TNA with a popular support base of about half a million voters, elected sixteen members to Parliament at the last election. This was following up on the decisive role which it played in the January 2015 election, where voting as almost a monolithic bloc, together with the Muslim voters within their constituencies, the TNA vote bank was largely the difference between the winner and the looser at the last presidential election. This dynamic will largely hold true for even the next presidential elections which is why the “three S troika” of Sambanthan, Sumanthiran and Senathirajah are important players in national politics today.

However, the TNA genuinely acts as a real opposition in Sri Lankan politics in several ways. Firstly, it genuinely acts as a check and balance on the raw abuse of state power by governments of the day. It is the TNA which can claim credit for its principled opposition to the Divi Neguma Bill under the Rajapakse Government in 2013 through the Eastern Provincial Council and subsequently launching the legal challenge to the said Bill, which when upheld by the Shiranie Bandaranaike Supreme Court, eventually led the then CJ to face impeachment charges by an overconfident and overbearing Rajapakse Administration, which may have won that battle but lost its war for reelection. In the most recent constitutional crisis drama, it was the TNA which played a significant role discretely and behind the scenes to ensure that democratic practices and principles were upheld and democratic institutions held sway.

There are many internal critics of the TNA and this is both natural and healthy in democratic politics. Sambanthan, Senathirajah and Sumanthiran are no dictators to assassinate their opponents, even politically let alone with any physical violence or brutality. None of them have a tradition of militancy or armed rebellion against the state as many of their detractors do and generally box by the Queensbury rules in a more genteel kind of politics which is perhaps the perfect antidote to the extreme violence which was Tamil politics during the years of the armed conflict. Tamil politics in Sri Lanka has come a full circle, ten years after the end of the war, democratic, diverse and now increasingly nationally quite decisive.

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