By Niran Anketell –
While the Tamil National Alliance’s defeat of the United People Freedom Alliance in the Northern Provincial Council election was widely expected, the sheer scale of the TNA’s victory was unanticipated. While TNA leaders repeatedly expressed a desire for 30 seats on the campaign trail, in reality, sights were centred on the 26-seat mark that would have ensured a two-thirds majority in the Council. In their recent piece analyzing the results of the election, Gibson Bateman and Rathika Innasimuttu make a number of useful and perceptive points. Observing that the percentage of votes garnered by the government at successive elections in the post-war North has reduced significantly over time, they conclude that people in the Northern Province are “fed up with the UPFA”. The vote in the NPC election, they claim, shows the change in people’s attitudes towards the UPFA – from resigned support in 2009 to deep antagonism in 2013.
A more detailed study of voting patterns in Jaffna – which are mirrored in the results across the other four districts in the Northern Province – reflect a somewhat different reality. Gibson and Innasimuttu’s reliance on the percentage of votes for the UPFA relative to the total number of votes obscures the most significant and dramatic change in voting patterns over the last four years. The real story of change is that of increasing voter turnout at every successive election. In 2009, the turnout at the Jaffna Municipal Council election hit a record low of 22%. By the 2010 General election, the turnout in Jaffna remained around the low 20s, with only 168,277 votes cast in the entire district. The UPFA came a close second to the TNA at this election, establishing a support base of approximately 45,000 voters to the TNA’s 65,000. A large number of the government’s supporters were from the islands around Jaffna, where the EPDP and Navy maintained tight control. Notably, this base of approximately 45,000 voters turned out dutifully in the Presidential elections as well. By the 2011 local elections however, the gap between the TNA and the UPFA began to widen. While the UPFA’s base stayed with the alliance giving them more than 40,000 votes in Jaffna, increased voter turnout put the TNA into the clear. This increase from 22% to 46% caused the total votes garnered by the TNA to rise from 65,000 in 2010 to approximately 125,000 in 2011, but without depleting the UPFA’s base. Significantly, the 2011 local elections excluded the Jaffna Municipal Council where the TNA would likely have polled an extra 30,000 to 40,000 votes if that election was also held in 2011. In short, the TNA nearly managed to triple its support base without diminishing the UPFA’s support.
The voter turnout at the recent Provincial Council elections was therefore of critical importance. The UPFA’s prospects of remaining competitive with the TNA was contingent on a low turnout, just as in the case of the 2009 and 2010 elections. The government’s attempts at depressing the voter turnout by employing a number of means – violent and otherwise – were mostly illegal, but entirely rational. For the TNA, any chance of achieving a symbolically important two-thirds victory required a better turnout than in past elections. This was challenging for a number of reasons. There were fears that repeated requests for the TNA to boycott the election [and support an independent list of candidates] from political activists within and outside the country would depress the voter turnout. More critically, the involvement of the military in the elections was expected to put a dampener on voting. On election day, however, people turned out to vote. The turnout in Mannar, Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu hit unprecedented levels of over 70%. In Jaffna, where only 168,277 voted three years ago, 273,821 people voted last weekend, with the TNA winning 213,000 of those votes. The UPFA, which took 35,000 votes, had hemorrhaged some 10,000 votes, but dropped its share of the pie from 32% in 2010 to 14%.
The lessons emerging from this analysis strike a somewhat discordant note with popular theories attempting to explain the TNA’s romp to victory. While the government fell short of the consistent 45,000 votes it had previously turned out, the coup de grâce was not dealt by the relatively small number of deserting voters, but by new voters turning up. Bateman and Innasimuttu’s narrative of reluctant supporters turning away from the government into the arms of the TNA is therefore slightly misleading. Moreover, this narrative suggests that public sentiment towards the government was more positive immediately after the war than it is now. This is also implausible for a number of reasons, including the overwhelming support of Tamils for accountability in respect of pre-May 2009 atrocities; the tone and timbre of media attitudes to the government in the months and years following the war; the views of community and civil society leaders in the aftermath of the war; and most importantly, the nature and history of Tamil political struggle for six decades.
To understand the political winds blowing in the North and East, it is important to identify the causes for the scale of the TNA’s recent win. In gaining this understanding, it is critical to ask why polling in the Northern Province – which saw record low turnouts in 2009 and 2010 – now polls at a higher percentage than even other Provinces?
The reasons for this change are likely multi-layered, but I would venture to suggest a few explanations. First, the TNA’s rising stature within and outside Sri Lanka has meant that disillusioned voters previously unable to identify a credible vehicle for their political struggle are able to do so now. The rupture caused by the bitter TNA – TNPF split in 2010 cast looming shadows over the viability of a united, sustained political struggle. These factors caused widespread disillusionment among the voting public and have taken time to self-correct. Despite incessant speculation by pundits of another split, the Alliance has managed to project a message of unity and resilience. That it convincingly rallied around the once disputed candidature of Mr. Wigneswaran buttressed the party’s reputation for putting the collective before personal gain. Moreover, the TNA’s involvement in ‘national’ or ‘progressive’ issues: the impeachment of the Chief Justice, the Eighteenth Amendment, and the violence against Muslims has afforded a numerically small but influential subset of ideologically anti-nationalist Tamils a measure of comfort in supporting a nationalist alliance over other alternatives. Second, the inevitable broad basing of the TNA’s leadership through participation in local government and now Provincial Council elections has swelled its membership, and as a result, caused an improvement in its ability to turn out voters. The alliance’s ‘ground game’, fetishized by political campaigns in the United States, has undergone massive improvement. Third, Tamils in the North and East have gradually come to accept that their votes can collectively be wielded as an effective tool in their struggle for political rights. For a beleaguered community, the scale of the defeat they inflicted on the government in the 2011 local government elections provided a newfound and much needed sense of confidence. The recurring – and arguably self-congratulatory – trope of the ‘dignified, upright, righteous Tamil’ in the TNA’s campaign echoed these sentiments.
The reasons I have identified are only a few of the salient causes amongst a number responsible for last week’s result. While the deep sense of alienation from the state and from the ruling alliance felt by Tamils has been repeatedly underscored, explanations for last week’s result that interpret the vote solely as a referendum on the government’s post-war performance are inadequate and inaccurate. Thus, while distrust and antipathy towards government have remained constant, the TNA’s recipe for success has been its ability to dramatically increase the turnout in the Northern Province, and in doing so, transform the contours of post-war Tamil politics. Its success going forward will rest on its ability to sustain the level of public political engagement it has recently inspired.