Colombo Telegraph

Beyond 50:50

By Dayan Jayatilleka

Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

The jury is in on the Presidential election. Here’s how it went down, according to an interesting source which can hardly be described as anti-Tamil, or Sinhala racist. Listen to Mr. Erik Solheim:

“…The election victory was possible due to massive support from all Sri Lankan minorities. Mr. Rajapaksa won 90 out of 160 electoral districts and came out on top in nearly all Sinhala-dominated provinces. Mr. Rajapaksa roughly won the Sinhalese vote by 55 per cent. This was compensated for by Mr. Sirisena winning around 80 per cent of the Tamil vote and an even bigger share of Muslim votes. For this was payback time…” (‘Can The Unknown Angel Deliver?’ Erik Solheim, the Hindu, Jan 15th, 2015)

So Mahinda Rajapaksa indubitably won the majority of the majority of the island’s citizens: 55% of 70%. He lost. The winner failed to win a majority of the majority. He won. To a great many, this structural asymmetry makes the mandate look and feel like a doughnut.

Mr. MA Sumanthiran a liberal and a moderate Tamil nationalist, spells it out still more clearly in the Sunday Leader:

“This election has shown that Maithripala Sirisena’s victory was assured by those people who are numerically in the minority and therefore the weight of their votes equal to the weight of the vote from the majority community.”

This is at the core of the larger argument which he rolls out as follows:

“Basically, the communities that are smaller in number must also have equal access to power. That is the whole issue of majoritarianism. This election has shown that Maithripala Sirisena’s victory was assured by those people who are numerically in the minority and therefore the weight of their votes equal to the weight of the vote from the majority community.

What we expect is that people would be treated equally as equal citizens and that means even as communities, not as individuals, but collectively as different communities also people should have equal access to decision making processes and state powers. And we expect that this particular phenomenon of this election of those communities making the decisive vote would cause difference in approach and the government in power will be conscious that this is not a homogeneous society but consist of different people. As different people, we must build the nation together.” (‘We All Gave to Accommodate Each Other’, MA Sumanthiran, the Sunday Leader, January 11th, 2015)

What Mr. Sumanthiran is saying is very simple. The Tamil struggle is not for equal rights as citizens—something which, by his airy dismissal, he implicitly concedes has already been achieved. It is for something else. It is for the political equality of the majority and the minority/ minorities. How this can possibly be the case in a democracy one fails to understand. It must be said however, that Mr. Sumanthiran is not merely frank, but well within the tradition of Tamil nationalism and its pre-Independence claim of 50:50—rejected by DS Senanayake—namely that the combined minorities should have equal political weight, or a share of state power equal to the majority.

What is startlingly clear is that at this presidential election 2015, the minorities achieved that outcome. They outweighed the political weight of the majority of the majority.

Then there are the domestic geopolitical and geo-strategic dimensions of the electoral outcome as symbolized by the (post) electoral map. It sure reminds me of the crab-claw like Tamil Eelam map publicized by the EROS, the terrorist outfit that bombed Maradana in 1987 causing a large number of civilian casualties. That map was based not on the concept of ethnic Tamil nationhood but on that of the ‘Tamil speaking people’, which embraced the Northern and Eastern Tamils, the Muslims and the hill country Tamils of recent Indian origin.

Little wonder then that Velupillai Prabhakaran’s staunchest ally in Tamil Nadu termed 9th January 2015 as the happiest day of his life: “Today is the happiest day in my life and every Tamil family is celebrating the fall of Mahinda Rajapaksa,” Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam general secretary Vaiko said in Thanjavur on Friday…Mr. Vaiko claimed that Mr. Rajapaksa has been thrown out by Sri Lanka’s voters, with an overwhelming majority in the Tamil-dominated North and East going against him…” (‘It’s the happiest day of My Life’: Vaiko on Sri Lanka Poll Verdict, L. Renganathan, The Hindu, January 9th 2015).

Now none of this would really matter in a first world society in which the issue of national identity has been historically resolved for the most part. Not so in the far more unevenly developed ex-colonial societies of Asia, Africa and Latin America, still under hegemonic pressure from the West. Ideally it shouldn’t matter in Sri Lanka either, but here’s the rub. In the North and East which voted against Mahinda Rajapaksa, if a referendum were held tomorrow in which the question was “Is your preference for President Sirisena or a separate Tamil Eelam?” one isn’t sure how the vote would turn out. (Well, to be honest, I am fairly sure how it would turn out.) Therefore, the problem is not that President Sirisena’s victory was decided by the huge majorities in the North and East which is mainly Tamil speaking, or that those were revanchist votes against Mahinda Rajapaksa rather than for Maithripala Sirisena but precisely because those areas have a dualistic, almost schizoid political identity—one does not know whether or not they are committed to the single, indissoluble, indivisible, united, political community.

The map of the election results corresponds uncannily not only to the Tamil Eelam map of the EROS, but more interestingly to the idea presented by the late Prof Samuel P. Huntington in his ‘The Clash of Civilizations and the Re-making of World Order’ He posited the grand thesis that the post-Cold War world would be driven not by ideologies or even national interest but by a clash of various civilizational constellations which he went on to itemize. This much is well-known. What is little known is his allied thesis of civilizational ‘fault lines’ and his contention that conflict takes place along the fault lines of various civilizational zones or systems.

What is least known among local readers is that he made mention of Sri Lanka. He said that the conflict in Sri Lanka was on the ‘fault line’ between the Indic-Hindu civilizational zone or sphere of influence and the Buddhist civilizational zone or sphere of influence.

What the map of the electoral result in Sri Lanka and the areas won by President Sirisena and outgoing President Rajapaksa corresponds to is pretty much the fault lines of the Indic-Hindu civilizational sphere of influence (the North and East, the plantations and in part, Colombo city) and the Buddhist sphere of civilizational influence on the island.

Beginning with Lebanon in 1958 and in the 1970s, manifesting itself in Malaysia in the late ’60s and currently sweeping through the Arab societies with Sunni-Shia minority/majority composition, there is a mountain range of evidence of the polarizations caused by such asymmetries embedded in the power bases of regimes, compounded by such uneven domestic geopolitical patterning and cross-border interfacing, and accentuated by the centrifugal dynamics of weakened central state structures. With the abolition or drastic truncation of the executive presidential system (“look Ma, I shrunk the State”), and the kaleidoscopic process of political re-composition that is already underway, the convergence of these factors on the North-South/external-internal axis of Sri Lanka’s politics may transmute into irreconcilable “antagonistic contradictions” which President Sirisena, an ex-Maoist will surely need all his old knowledge of Maoist philosophy to “correctly handle”.

Just as the removal of the civic rights of Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike did not help the stability of the system or sustained economic growth in the 1980s and indeed shunted the contradictions onto extra-systemic lines, both ethnic and ideological, any vicious act of framing Mahinda Rajapaksa for a ridiculous putsch attempt will not help bridge the deficit in the new administration’s mandate. Notwithstanding the co-optation of the SLFP MPs, the JVP and the JHU as a protective body armor around an essentially UNP government now in unelected occupation of Temple Trees, such a myopic move will only add to the systemic and structural sources of instability.

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