I am not a political analyst of any sort nor an academic with expert knowledge in politics. However, this is the time all Sri Lankans try to make sense out of the country’s political history to take informed decisions. I just thought of sharing my specific thoughts about the role of the minor political parties. The glare of main political parties often makes us overlook the role of minor opposition parties in the Sri Lankan parliament. We often forget that their composition and principles indicate major concerns limited to certain groups of citizens, which if neglected, can lead to social catastrophes even the majorities have to face.
I start with 1977 – 1989 parliament shown in figure 1, because it was based on a new constitution that introduced an executive presidency while maintaining the republic introduced n 1972. In this parliament, United National Party (UNP) had 5/6 power in the parliament and the opposition was Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) with 18 seats from the North and East. The major league Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) was reduced to 8 seats. President JR Jayewardene simply ignored the opposition and did whatever possible to intimidate them. For instance, the leader of SLFP lost her civil rights, and rule of law was humiliated. When some judges were publicly stoned by goons, the president simply said – “oh, it is people enjoying their democratic rights!”. TULF could not stop the parliament from passing laws to standardize education that introduced a quota for each district to send students to universities, worsening the Sinhala/Tamil media based standardization introduced in 1972. This benefited most parts of the South, but it was a massive blow to students in the North that had a good education system capable of sending larger numbers to National universities. This standardization started strong sentiments among Tamil students and professionals living across the World to intensify the demand for a separate state where Tamils can take care of their own affairs centered on a good education system.
When I look back at this era, I find it hard to believe that JR Jayawardane administration chose a socialist approach of introducing quotas for education, when he represented a more capitalistic party that should have instead developed the school system in the South and broadened opportunities in universities. However, the relevance to the topic is that the opposition led by TULF was too weak to resist these moves. It only led to a loss of trust in democratic politics among the emerging radical Tamil youth.
JR Jayewardene administration skipped the General election to be held in 1983. He knew that an election would cost him the 5/6 powers in the parliament. Therefore, he went for a referendum asking whether the public was willing to extend the same parliament for another 6 years. Apart from this power hunger, his government had managed to intensify tribalistic politics both in the South and the North by cleverly instilling a sense of insecurity and paranoia in both communities. A little trigger was all that was needed for a massive racist civil blood bath. It happened on 23rd July 1983 triggered by an ambush by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on an army troop. Sinhalese mobs killed Tamil civilians and burned their properties in Colombo at will. Not a single culprit was arrested, and it took JR Jayewardene administration one week to impose a curfew under pressure mainly from Margaret Thatcher administration in UK. State media was high in bashing the undue interference from the International Community. UK and India were often singled out. This introduced a new dimension to Sri Lankan politics – a threat of dividing the country backed by the international community! A large majority of Sri Lankans gobbled up this version strongly coined by state media that was under the iron fist of clever lawyer, JR Jayewardene. I am sure JR Jayewardene knew that the pressure from UK came due to lobbying of Tamil professionals in UK who were disgruntled by his policies to limit Tamil students from getting into universities, and that from India came due to their own perceived threat from unrests in Tamil Nadu due to refugee Tamils from Sri Lanka.
Figure-2 shows the 10th Sri Lankan parliament elected in 1989 – 1994. We often ignore the fact that the Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students (EROS) got 13 seats, and that they represented a key Tamil concern about standardization of education and ideologies of power sharing as a solution to many problems with Colombo. It is also important to note that another 10 seats were shared by TULF, ENDLF, EPRLF, and TELO due to mushrooming of Tamil radical parties proposing alternative views to bring in reforms. Obsessed with a clear majority power, popular UNP led by president Ranasinghe Premadasa proved that the representation of the above Tamil parties in the parliament was in vein. This gave a clear legitimacy to LTTE to assassinate the leaders of the above parties in quick succession to emerge as the sole visible force representing Tamils. We all know what befell on Sri Lanka as a consequence.
The scenario in the 1994 – 2000 parliament is shown in figure-3. Note that the opposition re-organized under People’s Alliance (PA) to confront UNP, and EPDP overtook EROS in Tamil politics, which was later understood to be a shrewd but short-sighted political maneuver of the two main political parties to counter anti-Government Tamil politics. SLMC continued to use their block of 4-7 votes to bargain with both main parties. In this case, the main attention of major parties was to win SLMC and use EPDP to ignore the concerns put forward by all other Tamil parties who refused to form coalitions with them or be proxies for them. LTTE continued to nourish on this dishonest management of the minor political parties.
The PA continued to hold power in the 11th parliament elected in year 2000 shown in figure-4. Emergence of JVP as the 3rd force (10 seats) with fragmented Tamil vote share among 4-parties (with 16 seats in total), and Sinhala Heritage with 1-seat introduced new dynamics in the minor party politics in the parliament. Though Sinhala-Heritage won only 1 seat, it signified the solidification of Southern Nationalistic politics. JVP too was more aligned with Southern Nationalistic politics. This made fragmented Tamil parties more vulnerable to LTTE.
The result was a clear polarization of Nationalistic politics in the North and the South attracting an unprecedented level of International sympathy to LTTE led Tamil struggle. This, compounded by the economic crisis in 2000, forced another election in 2001 with a ceasefire agreement on the cards. This time UNP contested as a coalition like SLFP did in 1994. UNF got a clear mandate with 109 seats and PA was reduced to 77 seats as shown in figure-5. However, the president of the country, Mrs. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumarathunga (CBK) was from PA. Note that the landscape of minor political parties changed significantly too. JVP gained from 10 seats in 2000 to 16 in 2001. All Tamil parties except EPDP got together to form Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and kept their collective total at 15. EPDP was reduced to 2 from 9 in 1994.
What is noteworthy here was that president CBK fought back, but she was left with the only option of dissolving the parliament rather than buying a big chunk of MPs from the ruling party, because the wedge formed by JVP and TNA with 31 seats among them made it unviable to go for the second option. However, she made the Government less attractive to top politicians in the Government buy taking over three important ministries – defense, interior, and media. She also declared a state of emergency and used state media, now under her control, to convince the public that the country is in danger under the UNF government. When time was ripe, she dissolved the parliament in 2003.
The resulting 13th Sri Lankan parliament from 2004 – 2010 is shown in figure-6. Quite dramatically, this time PA absorbed JVP to form UPFA, further unifying southern Nationalistic leftist politics. Note that this was accompanied by the growth of Sinhala-Heritage (1-seat in 2000) to a significant Southern nationalistic political force called Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) with 9-seats in 2004. It further consolidated the polarization of Northern and Southern Nationalistic politics into two clear foci – one growing while feeding the other. It is signified by a clear rise of TNA that was often accused of representing LTTE in the parliament to 22 seats. This polarization inevitably created breeding grounds for a full-scale war between the LTTE and the Government.
Figure-7 shows the 2010 – 2015 parliament. This reflects the mentality of the country after the war came to an end in 2009. We notice that EPDP was now openly a part of UPFA. JHU too was openly absorbed to UPFA. TNA dropped from 22 in 2004 to 14 in 2010 forcing them to re-think about their character and identity in the post-war era. Often EPDP was credited for achieving this by empowering UPFA in the North. JVP that contested seperately was dropped to 7, mainly due to a lack of clarity about the distiction from UPFA in their post-war politics. Though UNF won 60 seats, a mass cross-over (often said to be a mass buy-over) brought president Mahinda Rajapaksa 2/3 power in the parliament. The result was a jumbo cabinet of ministers (Prime Minister + 10 Senior Ministers + 54 Ministers + 2 Project Ministers + 38 Deputy Ministers). This was made possible by the weak wedge formed by the minor political parties (just 21 seats between JVP and TNA with none from other minor parties).
Again, the country spiraled down the path of Nationalistic polarization. TNA grew in popularity in the North and the East, while UPFA led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa continued to thrive on Nationalistic politics with an iron fist on state media. A number of independent media personnel lost their lives, and ultra-Nationalistic groups like Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) enjoyed total impunity in harassing Muslims. Another ethnic catastrophe was in the formation.
Due to some magical turn of events, upbeat President Rajapaksa decided to go for the next presidential election two years in advance of schedule in January 2015. A number of senior ministers in the UPFA led by party secretary Maithripala Sirisena defected. The whole opposition united under the presidential candidate Maithripala Sirisena to contest against Mahinda Rajapaksa. Perhaps, this was the riskiest political decision taken by Maithripala Sirisena in his whole life that ended in a success. What is important to note here is that what was expected to end up in an ethnic blood bath ended up in a radical shift in the politics of minor political parties. JVP openly stressed upon the need for National reconciliation. TNA that grew in power in the North and East showed more flexibility to negotiate with the Central Government. In response, the Central Government appointed a civilian as the Governor of the North and East and solved several issues like releasing 425 acres of army-occupied lands back to civilians through a process of dialog. Nationalistic JHU split into two with a hard-core Nationalistic section remaining supportive to Mahinda Rajapaksa. The other section showed improved flexibility towards reconciliation efforts.
This is the backdrop on which we are going for the general election in August 2015. Again, I want to stress on the significance of the minor party politics in the parliament. Whenever, a major party secured undue power, they chose to do divisive and Nationalistic politics brewing a polarization between North and the South. The antidote seems to be a strong minor party block that appreciates the need for good governance, rule of law, democracy, and National reconciliation. Traditionally, minor conventional leftist parties and the Muslim Congress have settled down to conform with the ruling party in exchange of ministerial positions. Therefore, that block should come from minor parties that have traditionally stood by their principles. Due to this reason, I would dream of that block to come from TNA and JVP with a strong will to defend above National priorities and to hold the major parties accountable for it, so that they will do more of that politics to win over the vote base of minor parties than doing more of Nationalistic and divisive politics. Having said that, I would strongly urge JVP to abandon their traditional tactics of waiting till a disaster happens to make their point, and to be a more active driving force in the opposition with determination to engage positively.