By S. I. Keethaponcalan –
Sri Lanka’s main Tamil political party, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) made the decision to back the opposition common candidate Maithripala Sirisena about ten days before the election. The decision was not easy as the party was under pressure from internal as well as external groups to either boycott the election or to stay neutral. The party finally came out and announced the decision on December 30, 2014. This was a significant move.
First, the boycott call came from within the Tamil community in Sri Lanka and the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora in the West. Locally, rival Tamil parties such as the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF), leading members of the TNA, and Tamil civil society groups resisted the idea to participate in the election. Some of them wanted the TNA to stay neutral and other advocated for a boycott. In a way, the TNA strengthened the call for a boycott and thus the pressure on itself through earlier pronouncements that the party had no confidence in either (major) candidates. Sanity however, prevailed. Now we know that the party is not boycotting the election and not staying neutral. The TNA has become a partner in the common opposition alliance.
In the last few years Tamil politics was stalemated due to the attitude and policies of the Sri Lankan government and the TNA. Now, the party has decided to vote for a change. Therefore, if the opposition alliance wins the election, the TNA will have an opportunity to play a more proactive role in the Sri Lankan politics and promote the interest of the community that it represents within accepted parameters. A decision to stay neutral or boycott the election would have further isolated the party from mainstream politics. The decision has the potential to undo the isolation the party faced thus far, which in turn could solve some of the major problems. If elected, the new government led by Sirisena and the TNA just need to be reasonable.
There is no guarantee that everything will be rosy between these two parties in the post-election period. Yet, it is worth a try. Given the nature of the opposition coalition, especially the minority participation, if elected, the Sirisena led government could device new mechanisms for improved ethnic relations. There will be an opportunity to look at ethnic issues from a new perspective.
Second, the call for a boycott mainly came from the Tamil diaspora in the West. The Tamil diaspora in the West is not homogeneous. However, a radical segment within the diaspora led the call for a boycott. This group tries to shape and determine the political agenda of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka. Their strength emanates from the fact that they supported the war efforts of the LTTE financially. At times, the TNA itself was trying to appease this group by adopting hardline policies. Since the realities of the two groups, the Tamil community in Sri Lanka and the diaspora, are different and any consequence of all policies or actions will be faced by the people in the country, policy making power should be with the people in Sri Lanka; not the diaspora. The diaspora could and should support the decision of the people who live in the reality.
Obviously, the TNA by deciding to participate in the election and support the opposition common candidate has successfully resisted the dictates of the diaspora. This is significant and could be a new beginning. In fact the TNA and the diaspora are dependent on each other for their politics. Therefore, the TNA decision could mark the beginning of a new relations between these two entities. The Tamil people in Sri Lanka and their political leadership should be the dominant partners in this relationship.
Therefore, the present decision of the TNA is notable and significant. However, it is not without its challenges. The first and foremost challenge is the possibility of a rift within the party. As already indicated, the call for boycott also came from within the party. Some of the second tier leaders like Ananthi Sasitharan and Shivajilingam advocated a boycott and are extremely unhappy about the present decision. It is believed that a number of leading members also subscribed to the idea of a boycott. Some of these leaders have already indicated that they will boycott the election regardless of the decision of the party hierarchy. Hence, there is a possibility of serious disagreements and accusations in the future.
This election is already proved to be the most divisive in nature as almost all the parties are divided. Now the TNA could also face similar problems. One has to wait and see how the TNA leadership will handle differences of opinion within the party on the election.
The second challenge is to deliver the 80 percent votes the party gained in the Northern Province to Sirisena. It is important to note that the TNA decision came rather late. To be really effective the common opposition alliance and the TNA should have come to an understanding before the postal votes began. A concrete decision by the TNA before the postal votes would have allowed the Tamil electors to vote with confidence, which would have favored Sirisena. Probably, Sirisena lost a few votes there.
Some argue that the TNA decision was delayed due to strategic designs. It remains to be seen if this strategy was effective. The indecisiveness of the TNA for a considerable period and the lateness of the present decision allowed the advocates of boycott and the government to make inroads into the Tamil vote base. For example, at least a small number of Tamil voters, will stay away from the elections due to the influence of advocates of a boycott.
Also, it is imperative to note that President Rajapaksa polled about 25 percent of the votes in Jaffna and Vanni districts in 2010. Given the mood prevailed within the Tamil community in 2010, this was an impressive number. The indecisiveness of the TNA probably allowed the President to campaign effectively among the Tamil voters. It won’t be surprising if the President increases his gains in these two districts in January. If the TNA is serious about delivering those 80 percent of the votes to Sirisena in January, it will have to campaign hard in the remaining one week before the election. This will be a tough ask.
*Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan is Chair of the Conflict Resolution Department, Salisbury University, Maryland