By Shanthan Thamba –
On the 9th of January 2014 the Sri Lankan Presidential election results would have been announced. It is needless to say that, this election is a two horse race between the incumbent Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa and his erstwhile secretary of his party turned his contender, Mr Maithiripala Srisena. One of them is expected to be declared elected as the President by the election commissioner on the 9th of January. There are about nineteen other names on the ballot paper, but every voter including those ‘candidates’ know that they are not in the running.
The incumbent President has two more years in the office but he decided to call this election now. ‘A week is a long time in politics’ is one of the famous quotes of the 20th century; by the former British Prime Minister Mr Harold Wilson. Mr Rajapaksa’s two years in government is a hell of a long time. If one wants and willing; it is long enough time to accomplish a substantial social, economic and political program. There is nothing in the way to the present government to implement their program. There is no terrorism to fight; there is a legislature where this government has the absolute majority.
Why did the President choose to sacrifice his power and opted to go for a poll prematurely? Some say it is due to the astrological considerations. This may or may not be plausible. However there are people who believe that the President who has been a shrewd and an innate political operator for more than four decades; assessed that he has a better chance now than in two years’ time. This also shows that he foresaw further decline of his popularity and he could not find a way to reverse this trend. Thus the scene is set by Mr Rajapaksa for the Sri Lankan voters to exercise their franchise.
The first major setback:
As soon as the election date is announced, Mr Maithiripala Srisena emerged as the common candidate of the opposition. It appears that the President and his close associates seem to be unaware of the likelihood Mr Srisena’s candidacy. This has given the first impression to the common man that the President and his team are beginning to lose the plot. It also illustrates that the emerging opposition is; to a certain extent seized control of the unfolding events. The fragmented opposition in Sri Lanka for once seems to be coherent and acting with a purpose. These are early days yet but the movement for a political change in Sri Lanka is indubitably set in motion regardless of who wins this Presidential race.
TNA’s approach in the past elections:
It is said that in the last two Presidential elections of 2005 and 2010, TNA played a decisive role in different ways. In 2005 when Mr Rajapaksa contested for the first time, LTTE– TNA enforced boycott of the election in the predominantly Tamil areas ensured a marginal victory and enabled Mr Rajapaksha to become the President.
In the 2010 election, many believe that the open support of the TNA for the then common candidate Mr Sarath Fonseka indirectly instigated the massively triumphalist Sinhala constituency at that time; to vote for Mr Rajapaksa and returned him to the office for the second time.
On both occasions, to the credit of the TNA, they have clearly stated their position and the reasons for their decision and called on the people to act upon it. In hindsight one may question the political wisdom of the TNA but that is all part of the history now.
The options for the voters:
- Vote for the return of Mr Rajapaksa.
- Vote for the common candidate Mr Srisena.
- Work for the defeat of Mr Rajapaksa. – What the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) is doing.
According to the JVP this is an illegal and unconstitutional election and they do not want to be part of a process to elect the President through an illegal election. The reason behind JVP’s predicament is understandable. JVP’s priority is to defeat the present government; in the meantime they are not convinced that the victory of the opposition candidate will open up the necessary political space for radical changes that they desire.
JVP’s objective in this electoral process is to engage in a mass campaign to expand their voter base with a view to improve their performance in the future parliamentary election. There is a subtle difference between options two and three; though both will lead to the same outcome. In short JVP is not calling for the boycott of the election but already started their campaign to defeat the attempt by Mr Rajapaksa to become the President for the third time.
The challenges facing the TNA:
TNA has indicated their position in support of the common candidate, abolition of the Executive Presidency, full implementation of the 17th amendment and the repeal of the 18th amendment. TNA leader Mr Sampanthan’s appearance on the podium with the opposition parties in a public meeting also shows that they are in favour of the common opposition candidate. There is a general perception that the vast majority of the Tamil and Muslim voters are in no mood to vote for Mr Rajapaksa anyway. The press reports also suggest that the TNA is having consultation and discussion with the opposition, details of which are not known to the electorate.
The TNA, claiming to be the premier political configuration of the Northern and Eastern Tamils is hesitant to actively engage in this process so far. There cannot be a back door deal; such deals may benefit those who use this opportunity to get closer to the future government members but not likely to bring about genuine reconciliation. TNA leadership should have acted with confidence and lead the people from the front. Whatever the decision they make about the Presidential election they should explain their decision to the people. Tamil voters have placed enormous trust in the TNA and voted for them in the past, so they owe it to the people. Instead they seem to be ducking and diving. Different leaders give different signals. They are keen to postpone their decision as long as possible.
TNA should realise that they are at the crossroads of history. The political landscape of Sri Lanka is undergoing an incredible change. Whoever wins the election; a movement for change is born and it seems irreversible. There is a vibrant discussion taking place throughout the country. The vast number of people attending the opposition political rallies demonstrates that ordinary people are actively engaging in this debate. One can clearly see the coherent and conscious efforts of the Sinhala leaders of different political parties, despite their differences joining hands to expand the democratic space. On the contrary Tamil leadership acts like a winching child in the school playground continuously listing out its grievances but unable to articulate what they really want.
It is not too late for the TNA even today. The accusation that the TNA is pandering to the whims and fancies of the extremist separatist fringe in the Tamil polity and particularly to the extremist elements in the diaspora is not entirely true. The real issue seems to be that the TNA is unable to forcefully articulate the aspirations of the majority Tamils. It is a fact that the TNA is the political entity which is operating on the ground and was elected by the people. They have a crucial decision to make at this juncture. The options today are not complicated.
Confrontational posturing to maintain the Status quo:
TNA was formed just before the general election of 2001 and functioned as the political wing of the LTTE until 2009. Subsequently the TNA has become the sole determining factor in the Tamil politics. Until 2009, the role of the TNA was to maintain the confrontational posturing to justify the armed struggle of the LTTE. The people generally know that it was not a choice preferred by the TNA but the only option given by the LTTE. However, TNA has electorally benefitted by the role defined by the LTTE for them.
TNA’s official spokesman Mr Suresh Premachandran is making demands in the media such as the removal of the army from the North and East, resettlement of all the displaced people, devolution of police and land powers to the provinces and devolution beyond the 13th amendment. Of course Tamil people will not disagree. The question is what did Suresh and his TNA did to achieve this in the last thirteen years they have been in the driving seat of Tamil politics? This is what the ‘confrontational posturing’ approach is. The aim is not to seek a solution but to maintain the status quo. If politics is only about winning elections and few people enjoy the powers that brings with it, then this is precisely what they should do; posture and maintain the status quo.
On the other hand those who think that politics is a pursuit of greater ideals about serving the people and restoring the dignity of our people by enabling them to be an equal stake holder in the running of the country; there must certainly be an alternative approach. It is high time the TNA define itself the role they intend to play. Coming days will give an opportunity to the people to see which way the TNA is intending to go. This is the challenge facing the TNA today.