By Jehan Perera –
The east is a part of the country where the price paid by the people where the ethnicisation of politics is still a dominant factor is visible. The main road runs through Tamil and Muslim settlements which are often consecutive with a Tamil-majority area followed by a Muslim-majority one and vice versa. The difference in the level of physical development of these towns and villages becomes more evident as a result. One set is bustling and energetic, and at night the streets and shops are well lit, while the other is less so.
Recently there were demonstrations in the east against the appointment of a Muslim politician as the Governor of the Eastern Province. The concern articulated by the Tamil protestors was that they would be further marginalized as a result of this appointment. Prior to his appointment Governor M.L.A.M. Hizbullah was a Member of Parliament and former minister in the same province of which he is now governor. The Tamil concern is that he will be partisan in his decision making on issues where the interests of Tamils and Muslims diverge.
The relative success of the Muslim community in the east may be attributed at least in part to the willingness of its political parties to join governments and be partners with them. Other reasons include the language capabilities of the Muslim politicians who are usually fluent in all three languages unlike their Sinhala and Tamil counterparts who are often monolingual. A further reason for the neglect of the Tamil community is that the main Tamil parties which have not been prepared to join government coalitions. The last time they did join was in the late 1960s, and even then the alliance was short lived when the government of that time failed to deliver on the political reforms that the Tamil polity sought.
As a result of joining governments, Muslim political parties have been able to obtain ministerial positions in government and thereby are able to provide political patronage and governmental resources to their constituencies. They have been able to negotiate successfully in getting economic development and employment to their constituencies. By way of contrast, the Tamil political parties have remained in the opposition without joining the government. Their priority has been to obtain the political rights of their community.
Despite Governor Hizbullah’s pledge to be non-partisan between the communities in the east, political realities are likely to modify his pledge. He has stated that he will be governor only for a short period until the next general election which he is likely to contest. The governor was not successful in winning a seat at the last general election and came into the parliament on the national list. As the eastern vote is polarized on communal lines it is going to be difficult for him to be non-partisan if he wishes to succeed in winning a seat in parliament.
On the other hand, TNA leader R Sampanthan has changed the character of Tamil politics from being primarily oppositional to being one of responsible opposition. Especially during the recent political crisis, the TNA played the role of a responsible opposition which safeguarded the democratic process when it was in danger of breaking down. Instead of seeking to strike a hard bargain at a time when a single parliamentarian was trading for Rs 500 million, TNA leader Sampanthan’s commitment was to the democratic process, the upholding of the constitution and the rule of law. He and this party now need to show the Tamil people that their efforts were not in vain and beneficial to those who voted for them.
President Maithripala Sirisena’s appointments of governors to the provinces appear to be motivated by the forthcoming provincial elections. Along with Governor Hizbullah, the president had appointed other governors who have had partisan political backgrounds and are active members of political parties that will be contesting future elections. In terms of the 13th Amendment the governors have powers that can undermine the powers of the elected chief ministers and ministers of the provinces.
Unfortunately, the president’s appointment of politically motivated governors will undermine the principle of devolution of powers. It highlights the need for reform of the constitution to reduce the powers of the governors to interfere in the administration of the provincial councils. The governor presently has power to review, veto and delay provincial legislation and public finance proposals of the board of ministers. In addition, even appointments to provincial public administration need to go through the governor. Constitutional reform is one of the priority agenda items for the government.
The continuing political and economic marginalization of the Tamil polity should induce a rethinking of traditional positions with regard to staying away from joining governments and engaging in coalition politics. They need to look at the relative success of the Muslim community due to the efforts of their political leaders. The most recent blow suffered by the Tamil polity is the loss of position of Leader of the Opposition, which TNA leader R Sampanthan enjoyed for more than three years until the political crisis that followed President Sirisena’s withdrawal from the government of national unity.
The TNA continues to hold to the position that the loss of the position of Opposition leader is an injustice to them. This is on account of President Sirisena’s dual role as head of the cabinet and holder of three ministerial portfolios and more than 40 government departments, while his party member former president Mahinda Rajapaksa simultaneously leads the opposition. The TNA has also questioned the validity of those members of parliament, including Opposition leader Rajapaksa, who have taken membership of the SLPP which is not registered as a party represented in parliament. However, in the absence of a legal initiative in the courts, this situation is unlikely to change.
Instead of leading the opposition, a more positive option for the TNA may be to join the government. The unwillingness to join governments caters to a nationalist mindset that says first there must be a vindication of the political rights of the Tamil people before governments can be joined. However, as a result there is a marginalization of the Tamil polity which leads to neglect of the communities at the grassroots level. The people do not get the economic and development resources that others who join the government succeed in bringing to their towns and villages.
In these circumstances, the Tamil polity needs to reconsider its unwillingness to engage in coalition politics. This is not necessarily as ministers as the Muslim politicians have successfully done. With Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe having taken over the portfolio of Northern Development, the TNA could ask to play a role in this even without joining the government. There could be supervisory executive committees that the TNA could join or even lead for the development of the north and east, if they negotiate hard enough with the government.