By S. I. Keethaponcalan –
Once, Tamils were more Sri Lankan (or rather Ceylonese) than the Sinhalese. When the Kandyan National Assembly and Bandaranaike were demanding a federal setup in Sri Lanka, resistance came from Tamil leaders. Although, G. G. Ponnampalam’s 50-50 demand entailed an unfair equation it was still a Colombo-centric formula. Even today, Tamil political leadership is extremely Colombo oriented and spends more time in Colombo than in their electorates in the North and East. Lack of power and opportunities in the center immensely contributed to the Tamil demand for separation. Accommodating minorities including the Tamils at the center and at the national level certainly could be one of the ways to promote national integration.
Therefore, Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader R. Sambanthan’s appointment as the Leader of the Opposition (LOTO) has the potential to strengthen goodwill among communities; that is if handled carefully by parties involved. That perhaps was one reason why President Sirisena conceded the position to Sambanthan.
This does not mean that Sambanthan deserved to be the LOTO, even if his party does not qualify to be the main opposition party. In other words, the LOTO position does not have to be a charity or a gift to the TNA. Opponents of Sambanthan as the LOTO, think or argue that the position was gifted to Sambandan for political reasons. Their argument is unfounded and in a way crooked. The criticism, unsurprisingly, comes from Mahinda Rajapaksa loyalists and sympathizers. The racist elements in their arguments are too obvious and even the ones who argued that their objection was not motivated by ethnicity or ethnic factors could not hide it too much. These are the people who have extensively used racist slogan to win the general election, without much success.
Some of them argued that the TNA polled only six percent of the total votes. Therefore, it cannot be the main opposition party as there were other parties, for example the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and the Janatha Vimukthi Prramuna (JVP) that polled more votes. They argued that this violates the sovereignty of the Sinhala people. Rationalists have already pointed out that in parliament, votes do not count. It is the seats that count in there. The TNA presently has more seats in the opposition.
Another commentator pointed out that Sambandan should thank Rajapaksa for the appointment, because President Sirisena “appointed” Sambanthan as the LOTO in order to checkmate Rajapaksa. Rajapaksa was not interested in the LOTO position. He was clear about that from the beginning. Rajapaksa’s interests are served well as an ordinary member of parliament. Now, he does not have to challenge Sirisena or the government, which could instigate a backlash against his family members and friends who stand accused of abuse and corruption. The parliamentary seat allows him to be in the midst of and contact with powerful people. In fact, Rajapaksa seems to be increasingly using soft-power to protect his interest. Therefore, Sirisena does not have to worry about Rajapaksa for at least about five years. This commentator’s criticism also had the embedded notion that Sambandan is an illegitimate LOTO.
However, the notion that the UPFA should be the main opposition party and one of its members (Kumara Welgama?) should be appointed as the LOTO, deserves attention. The UPFA probably created a world history by sitting in the government and the opposition at the same time from January to August 2015.The TNA did not challenge the paradox probably due to the anticipated announcement of the election. The irony probably was also evident to the UPFA leadership, which could have also led to the decision not to challenge Sambanda’s claim this time.
It is the SLFP that has signed an agreement with the UNF and has become part of the government. Therefore, the SLFP cannot be part of the opposition. This is obvious to everyone except die-hard supporters of Rajapaksa. The argument that UPFA should be the main opposition becomes legitimate if one could separate the UPFA from the SLFP. The UPFA (minus SLFP) is not part of the government. Therefore, they have all the reasons to stake a claim for the LOTO seat. The pertinent question here is whether the UPFA (minus SLFP) has more than 16 seats in parliament. It is reported that 85 percent of the UPFA parliamentarians are from the SLFP. This puts the UPFA (minus SLFP) seats roughly at 14; two seats shorter than the TNA members in parliament. This is exactly why the UPFA (minus SLFP) should prove their numbers to the speaker if they are keen on the position of the LOTO.
On the other hand, if the UPFA (minus SLFP) could prove to the speaker that they have more than 16 seats and officially inform the speaker that they will operate as an independent group in parliament, then their nominee should be recognized as the LOTO. This logic should also be applied to the illusive 56 member list so many people are suggesting.
As far as this author knows, the UPFA (minus SLFP) has not officially informed the speaker that it will operate as an independent group. This also means that UPFA should sever its relations with the SLFP because it cannot continue to keep the alliance with the SLFP and operate as an independent group. An interesting aspect of the UPFA faction that opposes Sambanda as the LOTO is that it sent the letter claiming the position to Sirisena; not the speaker. So, they still recognize Sirisena as their leader. If the UPFA wants the position it should renounce the SLFP and Sirisena’s leadership.
Would the UPFA do this? That is doubtful. The small parties of the UPFA for example Mahajana Eksath Peramuna and Jathika Nidahas Peramuna know that they can hardly win a single seat without the SLFP. Therefore, they would probably stick with the SLFP while criticizing the appointment of Sambanthan as the LOTO. Through this program they are trying to cater to the nationalist faction of the Sinhala voters. In other words, the UPFA’s opposition to Sambanthan is nothing but ethnic politics.
Meanwhile, from the TNA’s perspective it is important to recognize the fact that the appointment might be temporary. Right now the agreement between the UNF and the SLFP is effective for two years. If the coalition ends in two years, the SLFP will return to the opposition. Then Sambanthan has to vacate his position. The agreement also states that it could be extended beyond two years. However, it probably will not last for five years because prior to the next general election, the SLFP as one entity or its members will start quitting the government. This would also threaten Sambanthan’s position.
Therefore, Sambanthan needs to operate with the understanding that he, as the LOTO, could be toppled any time. Also, without merely occupying the seat, he should work with an agenda and strategy to maximize the value of the position for the country and the community within a limited period of time. This would be his primary challenge. The question whether he could fulfil his responsibilities effectively could gain significance due to his age and the limited support he enjoys within the opposition ranks.
*Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan is Chair of the Conflict Resolution Department, Salisbury University, Maryland.