22 May, 2022


Sambanthan & Crisis Of The Opposition

By S. I. Keethaponcalan

Dr S.I. Keethaponcalan

Dr 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.

Sampanthan TNAThis 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.

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Latest comments

  • 0

    “Opponents of Sambanthan as the LOTO, think or argue that the position was gifted to Sambandan for political reasons.”

    Not just to the opponents it sounds the same to the others too after reading Mangala’s statement to UN. He put it in a way that sounds that LOTO and the CJ positions were given as a gift for reconciliation.

    • 0

      Burt – You are right. Bringing Mr. Sampanthan as LOTO was a ploy by
      the govt.to get him to remain neutral in all issues,at a time when serious Tamil issues are in for discussion, as many Tamils feel that final peace pact with the govt. with international help,is about to be reached , this time. for certain as there is genuine international pressure this time.

      There will be a time ,soon, that he will regret his decision to have accepted the position of LOTO, when people of all communities start demanding for a neutral stand from him, as LOTO.
      What Tamils fear is that there is a ‘elite’ group in TNA who may agree
      for concessions and lessen the impact of Tamil demands under the name
      of reconciliation and make the 60 years struggle of the Tamils a joke.

  • 0

    Opposition Leader must select with the majority of the opposition members.

  • 1

    I believe that Sambanthan is aware of the fact that his position as LOTO is temporary, lasting at most for two years or a little more. Sumanthiran had mentioned this in an interview ( no time frame) he had given to a Tamil TV operating in Europe.

    Sengodan. M

  • 4

    I do not think most of these MPs are Colombo centric or Jaffna-centric.. They are self centered.


  • 1

    Hopefully there won’t be repeat of antitamil pogrom as it happened in 1983 when the tamil became and opposition leader in the same manner Sampthan Hasbecome.

  • 0

    Strange things are happening in Sri Lankan parliament. By a strange quirk of fate or due to fortuitous circumstances R.Sampanthan has been appointed as the Leader of the Opposition with just 16 seats. This is history repeating when A.Amirathalingam got appointed as Leader of the Opposition with just 18 seats. This was possible since the SLFP lost the elections badly with just 8 seats. Theoretically, the leader of the opposition is someone who is the alternative prime minister in case of defeat of the government in parliament. But in the case of Sampanthan he can never hope to form an alternative government in case of defeat with just 16 seats. He would not have become the Leader of the Opposition had the SLFP/UPFA led by Mahinda Rajapaksa won the election and formed the government. In that situation Ranil Wickremesinghe would have been recognized as the leader of the opposition. So Sampanthan should thank his stars that elevated him as the Leader of the Opposition even it is going to be only for 2 years!

  • 2

    Sampanthan understands very well that LOTO is temporory and it is not his intention to become a LOTO. We should understand that January 8 change was a committed work of well wishers of Srilanka’s future and to save Srilanka from International isolation. In this operation, political leadership within Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese worked together with International community to form a unity government and isolate all racist & fundamentalist elements from this equation who were always a barrier to resolve the national issues.In contrast to traditional opposition opposing everything, this Sampanthan lead opposition is going to be in opposition but a supporter of changes towards solving the problems. For some it is a coalition government in theory but it is a unity government in practice. Next two years is going to be decisive period and the future of Srilanka depends on the actions of unity government within this period. It is also a decisive period for Mahinda Rajapakse as well. He understands the risks for his own future of breaking the unity government through racism and Buddhist Fundamentalism.

  • 1

    Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan,

    Let me cut straight to the chase.

    The appointment of Mr Sambanthan as LOTO is one founded on mischief. MR and the UPFA/SLFP rump see plenty of mileage ahead in this, and they now sit back and contemplate the fun they are going to have.

    The scheming MS/RW too know well the opportunity that they have created.

    I wonder if Mr Sambanthan has heard of that old Anglo-Saxon game ‘piggy in the middle’.

    There is much sadness in this arrangement for Mr Sambanthan, and I am certainly not the only one to see this. Personally, I am old enough to remember the troubles and ridicule heaped on the hapless Appapillai Amirthalingam. I am sure that no decent person would want a repetition.

    I hope to God that my fears don’t come to pass.

  • 0

    I don’t think the LOP post is a gift. It is a constitutional stipulation which stipulated the party with the largest seat in the Parliament is to be recognized as the main opposition and its leader recognized as the LOP.
    The UPFA cannot have the cake and eat the cake which I feel is very unfair.
    I remember one of the reason JR wanted to introduce the PR system was to deprive a minority party leader becoming the LOP as under the PR a minority party it was expected will never emerge as the leading opposition. The recent development would have disappointed the framers of the PR.

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