25 May, 2024


Presidential Election & Tamil Politics: A Bundle Of Blunders 

By S. I. Keethaponcalan –

Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan

Presidential elections more often than not create a crisis within the Tamil community. In the recent past, these elections have contributed to internal debate whether they should boycott the poll or support one or the other candidate. It is often the radical fringe that advocates boycotts. Advocates of boycott justify their position on the argument that it is an affair of Sri Lanka, not the Tamil people. It was on the same claim that the LTTE boycotted the presidential election of 2005, a decision that was proved fatal for its existence. 

As a general rule, the main Tamil political parties have refrained from contesting the presidential polls. The decision not to contest stems from the fact that a Tamil cannot win a presidential election and the belief that fielding a Tamil candidate could undermine the chances of their preferred candidate from the South. The 2019 presidential election also produced similar dilemmas. 

2019 Dilemmas 

As usual, there was a call to boycott the 2019 election, which was ignored by a vast majority of the Tamil voters. Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam of the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) gave leadership to those who preferred a boycott. This was not the first time Ponnambalam had proposed boycotts of presidential elections. 

Also, as usual, the main Tamil political party, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), did not even contemplate the idea of fielding its candidate. Hence, for the Tamil people, the option was to vote for Sajith Premadasa, or Gatabaya Rajapaksa nominated respectively by the New Democratic Front (or the UNP) and the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). Voting for Sivajilingam, a Tamil candidate was not an option for many Tamil voters. Nationally, he polled only 0.09 percent votes. In Jaffna District, he obtained only 6,845 votes (1.84%).   

Voting for Rajapaksa or Premadasa was not easy either. Gotabaya, of course, has a problematic history with the Tamils. Gotabaya led the was against the LTTE during the last phase of the military confrontation, which was proved to be a humanitarian catastrophe for the Tamils. The immediate post-war period was also extremely difficult for the Tamils. For example, many in Jaffna in this period felt that they were living in an “open prison.”  

This, however, did not mean that they preferred Premadasa. Premadasa had three specific issues in attracting Tamil votes. One, he had a Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist outlook, which was not too attractive for the Tamils. Tamils prefer a neutral outlook. Ranil Wickremesinghe and Chandrika Kumaratunga had such attitudes and positions. Two, until very recently, Premadasa remained almost wholly ignorant of Tamil issues and did not attempt to connect with Tamil voters. His activities were centered on the South, especially in Sinhala Buddhist areas. He hardly undertook political or development activities in Tamil areas. Three, essentially, he was the UNP candidate. The UNP, in the last five years, failed miserably to deliver on the promises made to the Tamil votes in 2015. The Last-minute actions, such as the opening of the Jaffna Airport, were seen as political gimmicks by many Tamil.

Therefore, Premadasa was not their preferred candidate. Still, they overwhelmingly voted for him because he was seen as the lesser of two evils. Many Tamils and the TNA were open about the reality that they had to vote for the “perceived” lesser evil. Hence, the vote for Premadasa. He polled more than 80 percent in some Tamil majority districts. For instance, he polled 83.86 percent and 82.12 percent votes in Jaffna and Vanni districts, respectively. 

The point is that the Tamil vote against Rajapaksa was not racist, as suggested by some of the SLPP supporters. It was not a vote of reprisal for finishing off the LTTE. It was a vote of fear. The fear that a Gotabaya headed government will somehow work against the Tamil people and their interests. It is essential to understand that it was “fear” that determined the nature of Tamil votes if the new president is keen to repair his relations with the Tamil people.

Wigneswaran’s Move: A Surprise 

Faced with the usual dilemma of what to do with the newly announced presidential election, five Tamil parties signed an agreement to adopt a common approach vis-a-vis the presidential election. Reportedly, Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK), Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO), People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), the Tamil Makkal Koottani (TMK), and the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) signed the document. 

What surprised me in this exercise was the involvement of TMK and its leader, C.V, Wigneswaran. Wgneswaran only recently defected from the TNA and formed his outfit, the Tamil Makkal Koottani. To leave the TNA and to form his party, Wigneswaran should have had considerable policy differences with the TNA. Only fundamental policy differences could justify a new political party. Even if he did not have fundamental policy differences, he should have provided an alternative framework in order to sustain his new political party. However, he was inclined to working with the TNA even before facing an election and proving his capacity.

From an electoral point of view, this was a serious blunder made by the TMK. I believe that to be viable and useful, the TMK should highlight its differences with the TNA and make a case for why it could be an alternative to the TNA. The fact that the “Tamil alliance” did not last long could not be blamed on Vigneswaran. However, he should have known that the TNA will eventually endorse the UNP candidate.   

TNA Blunders 

Nevertheless, the Tamil parties came up with a 13-point proposal, which was rejected by both major candidates. Regardless of the rejections, the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (or the real TNA), along with PLOTE and TELO, decided to endorse the candidacy of Premadasa and campaigned for him. This is where I believe that the Tamil parties errored considerably. 

First, supporting a candidate even after he or she rejected the openly presented demands was extremely problematic from a negotiation point of view. The move exposed the TNA as well as the Tamil vulnerabilities. Premadasa most likely realized that the Tamils have no option but to vote for him. A smart political outfit would have extracted some concessions, even symbolic concessions, before openly supporting Premadasa. The TNA did not worry because some of the leading figures of the TNA were firmly under UNP influence. 

When the TNA negotiate next time, the UNP could confidently say no, because it knows that the TNA would eventually surrender. Therefore, the TNA’s decision to support Premadasa had established a bad precedent from a Tamil perspective. 

Second, the TNA did not have to compromise so much to support a losing candidate. It was clear for some of us that Premadasa did not have a chance in the 2019 election. I believe Premadasa himself made a colossal mistake by fighting for the UNP nomination. This was a fight Wickremesinghe was happy to lose.   

Nevertheless, I do not believe that the TNA or its leaders undertook an analysis of possible scenarios before deciding to support Premadasa. They should have done that. They did not do that. Therefore, they not only unconditionally supported Premadasa but also campaigned for him. By doing so, they may have invited backlash against Tamil people. One has to wait and see. Part of the blame should go to the TNA if a systematic campaign is undertaken to disintegrate Tamil votes. 

Stay Neutral or Contest  

In my view, the Tamil parties should not have presented the 13-point proposal before engaging the candidates with an open mind. The proposals placed the candidates in a defensive posture. Accepting the proposals would have become a liability. Therefore, the party and the Tamil groups should have expected the rejection. When it became clear that Premadasa could not win the polls, the Tamils should have decided to remain neutral. The TNA should have allowed the Tamil people to exercise their voting right in the way they deemed fit. This was the original position of many Tamil parties.  

The Tamil parties could learn a lesson or two from the JVP in this regard. Next time, the main Tamil party should field its candidate and then negotiate, if necessary. If electoral pacts are not feasible, they should contest, because it is their election as well.           

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Latest comments

  • 2

    Not a single woman, not a single Tamil, not a single Muslim among the new State ministers. What’s the point of this?
    Even the State Min for Women n Child Affairs is a Man ?‍♀️. What happened to the likes of Sudharshani F’dopulle, Sriyani W and Sumedha J? The women in SL sums up to 52% of population,
    Hon Pres we thought you wanted to build a respectable society for women?

    • 1

      Mr. Bukipala,
      In Sri Lanka, average people don’t care about this so-called ‘discrimination’; men vs women; boys vs girls, kings vs subjects, democrats vs autocrats, cats vs dogs, etc etc.
      You know it is Sri Lanka that produced the first woman PM in the world. Sri Lankan women had universal franchise even before their counterparts in most so-called western democracies.
      Female folks are a shy but proud and bossy lot in SL whether they are Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslims, or Burghers. Buddhists call the ‘mother’ an interesting nick-name: ‘Buddha at home’!They prefer it that way specially when it comes to politics too, where usually mud is slung, hatred is spread, fist fights are common, and even suicides are committed by idiotic men when a particular candidate is lost. For example, 3 gullible UNP slaves did so after Sajith lost the race. Their wives were stronger than those three slave UNPers, according to local news sources.
      What I understand from these Sri Lankan way of thinking is that we should not impose idealistic beliefs like 50-50 between men and women, communism or neo-liberalism as the accepted political system, the North is mine and the South is yours etc etc. When positive results are produced as they expect Sri Lankan people are ready to accept even a devil as the head of state, if that devil is known to them! Diaspora Tamils know the fact that the slain foreign minister Mr. Kadiragamar was tipped to be the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka even though he was a Tamil. He was killed by the LTTE for the mere reason of this political development at the time.
      Therefore, women or men in cabinet is not an issue for them. Hence, the old Sri Lankan saying: “if the cat catches mice, it doesn’t matter even it is made of clay”!

    • 0

      It is a case of a pig is still a pig with lipstick on.

  • 0

    Dear Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan

    An insightful article, but it still raises many questions. You mention thahot the vote against the SLPP candidate was an act of ‘reprisal’. This should be understood as equivalent to the vote against the UNP candidate in 1994 as a ‘reprisal’ for the brutal campaign against the JVP at that time. No doubt some people not only were against the method the government at the time used, but were also siding with the JVP and their rebellion, and their methods, which were patently unlawful, and destructive, not to mention pig-headed.

    You mention “The fear that a Gotabaya headed government will somehow work against the Tamil people and their interests”

    I have yet to hear a clear articulation of the “interests” of the Tamil people. Very bluntly I ask, is there a desire to return to the colonial period where Tamils had favored, or it something else, such as equality? True equality will give devolution to all the provinces, not just one or two.

    • 0

      No sir,
      The Tamils want equal rights as the Sinhalese and a merit-based system, not a system that is loaded against them. Where have you been living or are ignorant of the facts leading up to the civil war and the brutal way it was finished. Gotabaya and his Brother the Megalomaniac Mahinda are pathological liars and war criminals.

  • 2

    Agree with this article, TNA made a huge mistake in endorsing a candidate who offered absolutely nothing to the Tamil people. Why would you do that? Sumanthiran’s closeness to the UNP is primarily to blame for the ongoing irrelevance of the Tamil vote. I hope he is removed for the upcoming Parliamentary elections. It is time TNA implement a smart electoral strategy for the Tamil people, aligning with the UNP has proven to be a failure and a course correction is required.

  • 0

    In front of the world it shows division

  • 1

    It is TNA and their cohorts who perpetuate “fear” in order to maintain their grip over N&E Tamils. The Tamils have become psychologically captive prisoners of TNA. It was clearly illustrated in the way a totally unknown candidate by the name of Ariyawansa Dissanayake polled in the N&E. As the writer correctly pointed out, Sajith was an unknown qty. Those Tamils knew they had to vote to a bird as per TNA diktat though didn’t know who the candidate and why they were voting for him. They went an crossed against a bird they saw in the ballot paper. That is the level of politics in N&E Tamil constituency. Gotabaya was the best candidate to make a deal because he had the overwhelming majority voter confidence in the South. He is best placed to “sell” an agreeable deal to the South. By bringing in 13 demands which they knew would not be accepted and rejecting the candidate of the South, both Tamils and their local political master, TNA have blundered and closed negotiation space and maneuverability significantly. They can continue to complain to anybody and everybody. But the blame lies with them.

    • 1

      If a system fails its citizens the blame should go to the government, sir. Ever since independence, the country is being governed my utter morons supported by even greater morons ( in Sri Lankan terms absolute modias). The current president is no exception. Ever since SWRD Bandaranayake, it has gotten worse. We had no end of communal violence leading up to the civil war. The country has gone back in time and the academic standards have fallen, resulting in the country being ruled by thugs and criminals.

  • 3

    In 2015, a considerable proportion of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims did not like Mahinda Rajapakse rule for many reasons such as corruption, brutality, dictatorship, lawlessness etc. However, majority of Sinhalese were with Mahinda Family. After 2015, power struggle between Ranil and Sirisena made very difficult to make any progress on what they have promised to do. The power struggle among Sinhalese leadership will not allow to make any progress on devolution. In a democratic Srilanka there is no possibility to make this to happen. You can simply change Sinhala majority with a few fear mongering words. The Easter Bomb blast was a well planned execution to bring back Mahinda Family. This was executed carefully without any impact to Buddhist Sinhala majority. Therefore, whatever the decision TNA made or make in this election has no single effect on Gotabaya coming power and taking full control of the Government by Mahinda Family. Mahinda Family dictatorship is already started and it is now Mahinda law, Mahinda constitution , Mahinda justice. Even of TNA joins Mahinda Family, the fact is that Mahinda Family do not need TNA or any one else. If they join they can get some personal benefits like Ainkaran, Douglas, Kauna, and Hisbullah to carry out abduction, murder etc.

  • 1

    Tamil politicians from Mahadeva, Natesan (Not Nadesan QC)and GG Ponnampalm has been generally flirting with UNP and got cheated. Of course, they may have benefitted personally. If the Tamils were united during the DS. Senanayake’s regime and demanded equality, things would have been different. in 1952 too Tamil Arasu Kadchi gave ‘Responsive Co-operation’ to the UNP government led by Dudley. But got nothing. In 1956 in the height of SLFP power, entered into a Banda/ Chelva pact which brought in the first big riot against The Tamils resulting in the transport of Tamils by ship to Jaffna and via Jaffna to the East by road. ( Personal Experience) In 1983 the biggest riot all sponsored by UNP once again resulted in the Tamils being forced to sail by ship to Jaffna. These acts are a clear indication, that Tamils should have a homeland of their own and the Sinhal government are keen to deprive it,.so that the Tamils have no place to run/sail, But as there are various armies stationed in the North/East which will prevent the Tamils from having a safe living even there.
    What the Tamils have been looking for in the presidential election, irrespective of where they live is to elect the so-called lesser of the two evil. The apparent lesser evil would have been a snake under the grass and you won’t realize until you bleed to death with a vihara on top of your dead body – the foundation for which will be excavated by SAM/SUM.

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