Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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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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