Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Archive for August, 2020

The Challenges facing Sambanthan and the TNA

Posted by harimpeiris on August 27, 2020

By Harim Peiris

(Published in The Island on 26th August 2020)

The recent election results reveal interesting changes in Tamil politics in Sri Lanka. The predominant representative of the Tamil people, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which contest elections under its largest constituent party, the Illankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK), saw its share of the national vote decline, from 4.6%, in 2015 to 2.8% in 2020. Its parliamentary representation correspondingly declined from 16 MPs in 2015 to 10 MPs in the 9th Parliament of Sri Lanka. The good news for the TNA is that its popular support has roughly held steady from since the 2018 local government elections, where it secured 3% of the popular vote. So, those who voted for TNA, in 2018, supported them again in 2020. Whatever support it lost, it lost between 2015 and 2018, as the Sirisena/Wickemesinghe administration opened up democratic space and hence diversity in Tamil politics, but grossly underperformed on delivery amidst high expectations.

Rajavarothian Sampanthan, the TNA’s veteran leader and sole Tamil MP, from his native Trincomalee, is a former Leader of the Opposition and one of the senior-most MPs in the legislature, having first entered Parliament, in 1977. The TNA, will face major challenges to safeguard the interests of the Tamil community, during the ensuing term of the now super majority mandated Rajapakse SLPP Administration, intent on constitutional reforms. There are at least three major political challenges, that Rajavarothian Sambanthan needs to deal with.

1st challenge is Tamil tactical voting in 2019 and 2020

An interesting feature of the Tamil vote is that it votes en-bloc at presidential elections but subsequently diversifies in the ensuing general election. In the November 2019 presidential elections, the Tamil majority Jaffna District voted 84% in favour of Sajith Premadasa, with Gotabaya Rajapakse garnering only 6% of the vote and similarly in the Batticaloa District, Sajith Premadasa received 78% of the vote, while President Gotabaya Rajapakse secured just 12%. This was similar to prior presidential elections as well, where the Tamil votes go en bloc. What was different this time around is that in the ensuing parliamentary elections, the Tamil voters, diversified their electoral support. So, the TNA, needs to understand why and then deal with the reality that regional Tamil political parties, such as Karuna’s AITM, or Pilliyan’ s TMVP, who cannot influence the Tamil voter for a “national presidential candidate”, can still at the parliamentary elections, ally and align themselves with a president and a party, the Tamil voters have repudiated at presidential polls and use that alliance to defeat the TNA. A variant of that also holds true in Jaffna. Gajen Ponnambalam and CV Wigneswaren, did not expressly call for a presidential election boycott but scorned both presidential candidates and did not seek to turn out the Tamil vote in the presidential elections. The TNA did and delivered hugely for Sajith Premadasa. But the same voters, then deserted the TNA in the parliamentary polls.

The first challenge for TNA leader Sambanthan is to understand, why Tamil voters trust the TNA during presidential politics at the centre, but not regarding constituency politics.

2nd challenge; hold the moderate centre from further assault

The TNA is facing both a pragmatic and a hardline assault. It is being successfully attacked from both the left and the right wings and succumbing to pressure on both fronts. Using the pragmatic argument for collaborating with the government at the Centre, political parties such as the TMVP in Batticaloa and the AITM in Digamadulla (Ampara), interestingly, led by those with a history deeply embedded in the LTTE, have made serious inroads into the TNA’s support base, with just 11,700 votes separating the TNA from the TMVP in Batticalo. In Ampara the TNA actually lost to the AITM, 6.5% to 7.5%. Consequently, neither party elected a member from the Ampara District. The first time since State Council days, when no Tamil member would have represented Ampara until the TNA decided that its sole National List seat should go to one of its unsuccessful candidates in Ampara to ensure some Tamil representation in that district. In the Eastern province, the competition for resources have resulted in Tamil areas being vastly underdeveloped, as ministers from the Muslim parties have developed their constituencies and Sinhala villages have also expanded. The never-hold-government-office creed of Tamil nationalism is losing the argument in the Eastern Province.

In the Jaffna district, the collaborate-with-the centre argument has also had significant success, not only with the increase of the EPDP’s vote share from 10% to 12% from 2015 to 2020, (actually 16.5% if the EPDP breakaway Chandra Kumar’s Jaffna Independent Group 5 district vote of 4.5% is counted as well). Most spectacular with the reemergence of the SLFP in Jaffna with a lavishly spending Angajan Ramanathan, garnering 13.75% of the popular vote, especially among the youth. So, a full 35% or more than one-third of the Jaffna electorate has supported strong collaboration with the government at the centre, as reflected by the votes of the EPDP, the SLFP, Independent Group 5 together with the SJB’s 4% and the UNP’s 1% of the Jaffna district vote.

On the opposite end of the political spectrum in Jaffna, lies a more hardline Tamil nationalism articulated by the Tamil Congress (AITC) of Gajen Ponnambalam and the TMTK, the newly minted political apparatus of TNA breakaway, CV Wigneswaren, which garnered 15% and 10% of the popular vote respectively. The hardliner Tamil nationalism attracts only about 25% of the Jaffna vote and does not have support outside the Jaffna peninsula, attracting just 4% each of the vote in the Vanni district of the North. It fares disastrously in the Eastern Province, the AITC and the TMTK receiving only 0.5% and 1.6% in the Tamil majority Batticalo District and 1% and 0.5% in Trincomalee and being nonexistent in Ampara. The Tamil nationalist creed of first a political solution and then economic development has no resonance in the East, in the Vanni or among Tamil youth.

The second challenge for TNA leader Sambanthan is to expand the TNA’s politics to include Tamil economic and developmental interests, together with the political, cultural and social rights it is more familiar with.

3rd Challenge; empowering younger leaders and internal cohesion

The failed political leadership transition on full national display with regards to the United National Party(UNP) and earlier with regard to the SLFP/UPFA should provide a salutary and sobering lesson to the Illankai Tamil Arasu Katchi and the TNA, on the need to empower their next generation of leaders and post-election, to stop the interparty and intraalliance bickering and political sniping that is regrettably a part of both our preferential voting system and the regular jockeying for political influence. There was a clear choice facing Jaffna District TNA voters in this election and they have made their choice, clearly and unambiguously, even against the thrust of Tamil media and other elites, who backed their favourites but lost the election. It is noteworthy that social media is losing the power of the poison pen. It is time for those who lost the election to make way for the younger and proven elected leadership.

The third challenge for TNA leader Sambanthan is to ensure that a future Tamil political leadership that can hear the Tamil voice locally, engage the government at the centre nationally and speak to the international community globally is clearly designated and empowered.

The Rajapaksas and the SLPP have done what everyone thought was politically impossible. They have unifed the majority Sinhala vote, consequently marginalised the Muslim vote and divided the minority Tamil vote. To deal with that reality and defend a more pluralistic vision of Sri Lanka and represent Tamil interests effectively over the medium to long term, Rajavarothian Sambanthan and the TNA have their work cut out for them.

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Election 2020 – An Analysis and Trends

Posted by harimpeiris on August 18, 2020

By Harim Peiris

(Published in Groundviews on 07th August 2020)

The general election to parliament is concluded and the official results are out. The anticipated landslide victory to the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) has materialised with the SLPP winning a grand total of 145 seats through garnering a total of approximately 6.8 million votes or 59% of the valid votes cast. Through its stated allies, the SLFP (1 seat), the EPDP (2 seats), the TMVP (1 seat) and others in the pro-government political space, it has effectively reached the two-thirds majority it craved, or 150 seats, in the 225-member legislature.

The winning SLPP

The SLPP retained the 6.9 million votes it secured in the November 2019 presidential election, with just about one hundred thousand votes less. This in a situation where voter turnout was very much lower. The SLPP’s performance in the 2020 election is very impressive in many ways and is comparable to the Rajapaksa’s finest political hour, their parliamentary election victory back in 2010, just after ending the war. There the SLPP’s predecessor, the UPFA, garnered 60% of the popular vote and 144 seats. That this target was matched, and in fact surpassed without the trump card of ending the war, shows the scale and extent of what the SLPP has achieved politically this time around. In reality, the SLPP has improved on its 2010 performance. Much more than in 2010, the political discourse and public debate is completely dominated by the Administration, its ideologues and political fellow travellers, aided in no small measure by a dominant section of the private electronic media. Now effectively armed with a two-thirds majority, the country can await the newly elected SLPP Government’s policy priorities, which we should all hope will be ensuring that the Covid-19 pandemic does not translate into a national economic disaster, as our tourism, foreign remittances and other exports take a beating.

The newly minted Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) opposition  

An equally important story of the 2020 general election has been the demise of the United National Party (UNP) and its replacement by the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) led by the UNP’s former deputy leader and now Opposition Leader designate, former Cabinet Minister and November 2019’s runner up presidential candidate, Sajith Premadasa. The SJB came in admittedly a distant second to the winners. But the SJB, in securing 24% of the popular vote and 54 parliamentary seats, is roughly comparable to the UNP’s 29% popular vote and 60 seats in the 2010 parliamentary election, which was a sufficient spring board for the opposition to make an electoral comeback victory in 2015. Two SJB partner parties, the SLMC and the ACMC, secured a seat each under their own colours, having an effective SJB parliamentary group of 56 members of parliament.

Sajith Premadasa and the SJB answered loud and clear as to who is leader of the non-Rajapaksa political space and who is, however small today, the “alternative government” as political oppositions are known in democratic practice. The UNP had an unheralded and unprecedented demise. Failing to win a single seat in any district, it secured a dismal 2% of the total vote, or approximately 250,000 votes country wide and only approximately 30,000 odd votes in Colombo District, signalling that the UNP is now a historical monument rather than an electorally viable political force. The refusal of the UNP to be a part of the SJB critically weakened the opposition and contributed to the scale of the SLPP victory. Even now the rump UNP, perhaps under Naveen Dissanayake or Ravi Karunanayake, should accept the verdict of the opposition voters and join the SJB as its junior-most partner.

The SJB has a monumental task ahead to stand up to the SLPP juggernaut but young Premadasa had been standing up to the Rajapaksas in their native Hambantota ever since he cut his teeth in politics down south, away from his late father’s real base, the city of Colombo, to which he has now returned. Colombo city’s cosmopolitan, pluralistic society switched its allegiance from its traditional UNP and was en mass true to Sajith Premadasa and SJB, which even in the landslide victories of 2020, 2010 or even back in 1956 has always eluded and rejected the harder ethnic nationalist appeal.

The third place TNA/ITAK

The third place in Parliament in 2020 was predictably, though with considerably reduced numbers, secured by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), contesting through its main constituent, the Illankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK), led by the veteran Rajavarothian Sambanthan from Trincomalee. His hometown comfortably returned him to the legislature for yet another term.

Tamil politics has changed since the end of the war in 2009 with the TNA coming into its own and, to some extent, filling the political space left by the demise of the LTTE, which insisted on claiming the mantle of “sole representative of the Tamil people”. The TNA in the 2010 parliamentary election secured 2.9% of the popular vote and 14 seats, its finest hour being the 2015 parliamentary election in which it secured 4.6% of the national vote and 16 seats. Now in 2020 it is back to where it started in 2010 with 2.8% of the popular vote and 10 seats in parliament. It secured approximately 233,000 votes in 2010, 515,000 votes in 2015 and 327,000 votes in 2020. However, it has been significantly challenged from both ends of the political spectrum, showing that the moderate centre Tamil politics, best showcased TNA spokesman M.A. Sumanthiran, is under serious pressure and has to listen and learn from the message of the Tamil electorate and has hard work to do to retain its pre-eminent position as the “chief or main representative” of the Tamil people. Not only did their closest competitors the AITC and the EPDP come distant second and third place with 67,766 and 61,464 votes respectively but both parties made any impression only in the Northern Province. The TNA/ITAK is the only Tamil party with equal attraction and presence in both the North and the East and moves beyond particular regions and Tamil caste communities.

The leftwing JVP

Sri Lanka’s traditional left vote, once dominated by the LSSP and the Communist Party of yore, is now clearly in the hands of the JVP as its standard bearer. The JVP actually improved on its 2019 presidential election result, the only party to do so, moving up marginally from approximately 418,000 votes to 445,000 votes at the parliamentary election with 3.8% of the popular vote, up from 3.1% at the November election. However, its seat count declined from the 7 seats it secured in the 2015 parliamentary elections to 3 in 2020, its leader Anura Kumara Dissanayke, Vijitha Herath and a yet undecided national list seat making up the small parliamentary group. The JVP will be important allies for the SJB in creating a more cohesive political opposition to the SLPP and the SJB is well advised to be inclusive in parliamentary time and other facilities to the small ideological opposition political party.

The jury is back and the verdict is out. The Rajapakse Administration and its political vehicle, the SLPP, has a mandate to govern. The hope indeed should be that it would seek to move beyond the divisive rhetoric of the campaign trail, seek to be tolerant and inclusive in a pluralist society, respect democratic norms and freedoms, govern more through parliament and less through militarised task forces and settle down to the hard work of getting our nation and economy out of the Covid-19-induced slump we are in. All Sri Lankans should wish our newly elected government well for them to pursue our common good and shared destiny.

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