By MYM Siddeek –
The recently concluded election must have taught a very good lesson to Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) since it faced a devastating defeat as the first time in its history of nearly three decades. The party could secure only one seat in the districts where it contested in its own symbol, tree. The one seat was won in Batticaloa district where SLMC was born. The organisation was formed as a non-political civil movement by late MHM Ashraff, late Ahmed Lebbei, former Batticaloa local council chairman, and a few other well-wishers in 1981 in Kattankudy. Later in 1986, it was declared as a political party and recognised by the Election Commissioner in 1988. It contested its first parliament election in 1989.
One seat party
I cannot give credit to SLMC even for the one seat it secured in Batticaloa, because it contested jointly with another new small party (National Front for Good Governance – NFGG). Both parties’ candidates were contesting in SLMC symbol in the same list in the district. NFGG is not well known to many people in the country, but it is widely known to the voters in Kattankudy because it is the birthplace of the founder chairman of NFGG. He was polled around 12000 votes out of about 28,000 votes for SLMC. If not for the NFGG votes, even in Batticaloa, the SLMC might have faced a severe setback. It is also noteworthy that the UPFA candidate lost by only a very small margin in the district. In recognition of this he has been appointed a member of parliament from the UPFA national list and now he is a State Minister.
In Digamadulla District, where there is a large number of ardent Muslim UNP supporters, three SLMC candidates were elected since they contested in UNP symbol, Elephant, and embraced the UNP manifesto. When analysing the mood of the Muslim voters before SLMC crossed over to support the presidential candidate Maithripala Sirisena in the eleventh hour even after the postal votes were cast, anyone could have concluded that the party would not have secured a single seat from Digamadulla electoral district, had they contested in their own tree symbol. It is the well known fact that the UNP wave, anti-Rajapaksa atmosphere, the stand taken by the President and the JVP campaign, among other things, helped many unexpected UNP candidates get elected in the elephant symbol in the last parliamentary election. Had SLMC contested in its own symbol, some analysts suggest now, it might have secured only one seat (maximum) with great difficulty in Digamadulla electoral district, the birthplace of the SLMC founder leader, late MHM Ashraff.
In the electoral district of Kandy too, one SMC candidate was elected to the parliament since he contested in the UNP list and a large number of UNP Muslims and Sinhalese too cast their preference votes to the winning SLMC candidate. Further, the campaign of one prominent Muslim UNP provincial councillor of Central Provincial Council and another very popular Muslim UNP candidate who is a cabinet minister now went very well in the district. These factors helped the SLMC candidate got elected in the district.
In Trincomalee district, SLMC which contested in the UNP list could not secure a seat. It lost to the UNP and ACMC candidates. The ACMC candidates too contested the election in the UNP list in the district. In Vanni electoral district, where SLMC contested in its own symbol, the party was severely defeated by ACMC (UNP list) and UPFA. In the district, SLMC was polled only about 5,700 votes where it had its own MP in the past. In nutshell, had SLMC contested in its own symbol, it might have secured only one seat (maximum) in the recently concluded parliamentary election. In Jaffna electoral district, the party could not field candidates where it secured one seat in 1994 and gained about 8,000 votes in 1989 parliamentary election.
In Colombo district where there are nearly 300,000 Muslims, the party could not field its candidates. The same could be said in respect of other districts where Muslims have been elected to the parliament from other parties. Therefore, for securing 5 seats in the last parliamentary election by contesting in the UNP list and with NFGG, the credit should go to those parties too. Now the party has 7 MPs in the parliament including two national list MPs. The party leader expected to gain more than 10 seats excluding the national list MPs. Therefore, it may be said that SLMC sacrificed its party symbol and its own policies, if any, to secure seven seats in the last parliamentary election. It may also indicate that SLMC could not stand on its own feet in the last election and it may be the case in the future elections too unless the party leadership revives its stand and policies. Therefore, there is a consensus view among many analysts that it is fair to give one of the two national list seats given to the SLMC candidates to a UNP Muslim national list candidate.
When we look at the performance of SLMC when it contested in its own symbol in the past parliamentary elections since 1989, it was at its peak in 1994 and secured 7 seats. In 1989, 2001 and 2004 parliamentary elections also the party contested in its own symbol and secured 4 seats, 5 seats and 5 seats respectively. Although the Muslims were about 8% of the total population in Sri Lanka, the party could win only about 2% of the total votes in 2004.
Possible causes for the defeat
There is a consensus view among many observers that SLMC did not achieve anything concretely for the benefit of its voters rather than for a small group of people who were very close to the party leader and its key members. The burning issues facing the Muslim community continue to exist even after nearly three decades of the existence of the party. It is also alleged that the voters could not hear any clear statements about the party’s policies towards these issues and the community aspirations. Rather, the election campaign meetings were based on character assassination of the opposite candidates, the number of seats and portfolios, national list MPs, pathetic stories about the candidates’ past and so on. It is the view of many voters that the party should have had a credible election manifesto which could have had some positive impact on the voters.
Further, more importantly, the election campaigns by the SLMC splinter groups have damaged the party considerably. For example, SLMC lost about 50,000 votes to its splinter groups in Digamadulla district.
Another allegation against the party was that it did not honour a number of promises given to the voters in the election campaigns and the opportunistic stand taken by it in the past. For example, the party waited until the eleventh hour even after the postal votes were cast to support Maithripala Sirisena in the last presidential election. Further, it could not do anything acceptable to the community about the atrocities committed by the racist elements against the Muslims in the past when they were clinging to the ruling parties.
Furthermore, there are allegations about the way the candidates and national list MPs are selected by its leadership. It is learned that the party could not finalise its national list MPs even after about a month has lapsed from the date of the parliamentary election when all other parties have already finalised weeks ago. It is also learned that a severe in-fighting is going on within the party activists in sharing the two national list MPs gained from the UNP list. As a result, the appointments made so far as national list MPs in respect of SLMC is just to settle the problem temporarily until a final decision is made by the party leader. Now the two temporary national list MP appointees are the brother, and friend of SLMC leader Rauf Hakeem.
Another common allegation among many SLMC supporters is that the people did not have easy access to meet the party leader in the past several years since he was elected from another electoral district and representing that district unlike the late leader MHM Ashraff who hailed from the Muslim majority Ampara district in the Eastern Province.
Further, many Muslims think that some of the practices and behaviour of the SLMC candidates and the leader were against the basic Islamic principles although it was claimed that the party would follow the teachings of Quran and Prophet Mohamed (PBUH) in its activities.
The SLMC Splinter Groups
In the last parliamentary election, not only SLMC but also its splinter groups must have learned a good lesson. For example, All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) could not secure a seat in Muslim majority Digamadulla district ; similarly National Congress leader lost the election in the district. ACMC secured four seats in the districts where it contested in the UNP symbol. It is noteworthy that ACMC lost in Digamadulla electoral district where it contested in its own symbol peacock. Unless SLMC and its splinter groups come together and unite, I believe, there may not be a better future to the Muslim political parties in Sri Lanka.
The Tamil-Muslim relationship
Now the major Tamil parties (including up-country) have realised that they can work closely with the national parties and solve the problems facing the Tamil communities amicably. This is an opportunity for the Muslim politicians too to explore the possibility of joining hand with the Tamil parties to solve the common issues facing both the communities. For this to happen, both the communities and their leaders should forget their past bitter feelings and suspicions. The Tamils need to forget the bitter experience caused by the Muslim politicians since 1950s from the time they contested in Federal Party to the present SLMC time. Similarly, the Muslims must forget the bitter experience caused by the Tamil politicians from Ponnambalam Ramanathan to Velupillai Prabhakaran, to work on a common platform. First, they should develop mutual understanding and build their trust and relationship. The way the two communities’ political leaders recently settled the conflict arose with regards to the position of Chief Minister of Easter Provincial Council amicably is a very good starting point for this. Uniting two distinguished communities in this 21st century may be unrealistic. But they can at least develop understanding and build their trust and relationship as minorities to fulfil common aspirations of the Tamil speaking peoples. This can only happen by recognising each other’s separate identity, fundamental rights and aspirations and respecting each other. Like there are commonalities between all Sri Lankans, there are specific commonalities between the Tamils and Muslims. For example, the language they speak, some cultural norms they follow and living in the neighbourhoods in the Eastern and Northern provinces. These commonalities can be used as foundation to develop good undertaking and build trust and relationships. This will help solve common burning issues facing the two communities.
Need change within SLMC?
There is a firm believe among many SLMC activists that the decision-making process needs to be democratised in respect of appointment of office bearers including the position of the party leader, selecting candidates for elections, selecting national list MPs and so on. If the change in the process could be made, it may also pave the way for the SLMC splinter group leaders and members to come back and unite under one umbrella party. This will also warrant change in its party constitution. The leadership contest needs to be democratised and the opportunities must be given to other aspirants too to contest the position. The leader should be elected by secret ballot by the party members island wide. Nearly 15-year tenure of the current leader of the party is too long as many party activists and common man think.
There is a common believe among many Muslims that some party activists left SLMC and formed their own parties since they could not resist the leadership, their disagreement to the selection process of the leader, and the disagreement to some decisions taken by the current leadership which were against their wishes and not in the best interest of the party.
A radical change within the party and to its constitution may also pave the way for the founder members of the party to come back including intellectuals, professionals and academics and work for the party and common cause. This may also help expand the Muslims’ future representation countrywide. For example, there is no Muslim representation at all from Southern Province in the parliament from any of the parties now.
Alternatively, as the second option for the Muslim politicians to unite, they can come under one united Muslim front, even if each splinter group wants to keep their party and symbol, to contest the future elections under one symbol like TNA. This may reduce their dependence on the major political parties and enhance their bargaining power even if they want to bargain for portfolios and high profile positions. There may be obstacles for such a move from the elements that have vested interest in dividing the Muslims. The success of uniting the Muslims depends on how they overcome the obstacles. In addition, the parties should have clear vision and objectives for the community and strategies, policies and programmes to achieve them.
If they can unite, it may be possible to restore the identity and symbol of the parties which have been faded in the last general election. Then the parties will not need to embrace the symbol and policies of other parties for the sake of winning the contests in the future elections. This will rebuild the trust of the Muslims which have been lost considerably now. This will also clear the bad image the Sinhala leadership may have about SLMC and its splinter groups that they can be bought over for portfolios and positions anytime and, therefore, they do not need to take them serious.