Tamil politics heading for stormy weather
The results of the Local Government elections of February 10th have sent shock waves through the political establishment across the island. While the media concentrated on the panic and confused reactions of the political leaders in the South, little attention has been paid to the equally important message sent out by the Tamil voters to their leaders.
Some analysts point out that with this result at the local government election the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) can no longer claim to be the ‘The sole representative of the Tamils’.
The results have led to a further worsening of the TNA’s internal crisis which began when the Eelam people’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) led by Suresh Premachandran announced last November, that his party was no longer prepared to continue its alliance with the Ilankai Tamil ArasuKatchi(ITAK), led by veteran Tamil politician Rajavarothiam Sampanthan. His grouse was that ITAK has failed to fulfill the aspirations of the Tamils and to adhere to the agreed policies of the party.
Meanwhile, accusing the TNA leadership of not allowing free discussion amongst coalition members on issues that concern them, Chief Minister of the Northern Province, Canagasabapathy Visuvalingam Wigneswaran, another TNA critique, has demanded that members be allowed to speak about their concerns, and their views incorporated when taking decisions.
He also wants more political parties to be invited to the coalition to further strengthen the party, but ITAK leaders see this as a move to weaken their influence within the alliance.
In a bid to keep the TNA together, civil society groups led by former Bishop of Mannar, Kingsley Swamypillai attempted to mediate a settlement last year but failed. Civil society leaders in the north feel that if the alliance was to collapse, it would weaken the bargaining power of the Tamil speaking people.
The TNA consists of the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi(ITAK), the People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOT), and the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO).
Apart from ITAK, all other parties were one time armed groups that fought the Sri Lanka army to set up a separate State. They gave up their armed struggle and joined the political mainstream in 1987 after the Indo-Lanka accord.
The publication of the interim report for the proposed new constitution worsened the internal crisis in the TNA with Gajendra Kumar Ponnambalam and Suresh Premachandra accusing ITAK of supporting the report, which they claimed, fell short of the aspirations of the Tamils in the North and East.
It is in this background that Suresh Premachandran pulled out his party, the EPRLF from the Alliance last November.
“I cannot work with the TNA any longer, because they are going against the mandate given by the people. There is a difference between what we promised the people and what we are doing now. I worked with them for more than 15 years but they are not ready to restructure the party”, says Premachandran.
He claims that the interim report of the new constitution is not acceptable to the Tamil people. In the August 2015 parliamentary elections, Premachandran claims the TNA promised to fight for the merger of the North and East and for a federal system of government in the country. His complaint is that ITAK never took up the issue of the north and east merger at the constitutional council.
In the Local Government elections held this month, the TNA contested with TELO and PLOT under the ‘House Symbol’ of ITAK, Suresh Premachandran joined with Ananda Sangaree and contested under the ‘Sun symbol’ of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), while Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam’s All Ceylon Tamil Congress contested under the ‘Bicycle symbol’ as the Tamil National People’s Front.
The voting pattern showed that non ITAK parties have made noteworthy in-roads within the Tamil polity.
The TNA lost its majority in areas where they have dominated in the past, while Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam’s group and some independent groups have made significant inroads into the TNA vote bank. To govern the Local Councils, the TNA will now have to form coalitions with other parties.
Ananthy Sasitharan, a minister in the Northern Provincial Council is known for her hardline views. The wife of a senior Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE) leader who is believed to have died at the end of the separatist war, she has been at loggerheads with the much more moderate leaders of the TNA of which she is a member.
She claims that the election results would give her the opportunity to put pressure on the TNA leadership. She admits that even though she is a member of the TNA, she has always been very critical of its policies. “I must represent the views of the people who elect me and also, I should fight for the justice of my own loss.” says Sasitharan. (The fate of her husband, Sasitharan, is yet unknown, after he reportedly surrendered to the armed forces, with several other members towards the end of the war in May 2009. At that time he was the LTTE’s political leader for Trincomalee district).
Sasitharan accuses the TNA leadership of dishonouring the peoples mandate by accepting a local mechanism to probe- war crimes instead of an international inquiry.
The Catholic Church in the north has traditionally played an important role in local politics. Although Hindus out number Catholics by a huge margin. Catholic priests have intervened on behalf of the people whenever there are issues in their areas. So, it was normal for Jaffna Bishop Justin Gnanapragasam to intervene in an attempt to settle things between the Tamil parties.
“I requested All the Tamil parties in the North to be united for the sake of the Tamil people and their aspirations. Instead of fighting among ourselves we should look forward, to the future of the Tamils. All Tamil parties should help the government to take progressive steps in bringing a new constitution that would bring a solution to the Tamil national problem” the Bishop said.
In the local government election the TNA became the single biggest party in 41 councils in the North and East. However, it won an absolute majority only in two councils. In Poonagary Prasdeshiya Saba in Killinochchi ITAK won 11 seats and others 9 seats. The other was Verugal Pradeshya Saba in Trincomalee. Here ITAK won 7 and others 6 seats. In the North, the TNA is the single biggest party in 27 councils while the Tamil National People’s Front (All Ceylon Tamil Congress) and Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) of Dougles Devanada are the single biggest parties in 2 councils each.
With no clear winners in 32 of the Councils, political parties will be forced to form alliances to have the majority to govern.
Overall results showed a dramatic reduction in TNA’s percentage of votes. In the Jaffna District TNA won just 35%, TNPF-21%, and EPDP 19% .
In Killinochchi and Mullaitivu TNA did much better. It got 47% and 42% respectively. In a surprise win Chandra Kumar who left from EPDP and led an Independent Group received 30% votes in Killinochchi. In Mannar where there is a substantial Muslim vote TNA got 28 % and in Vavuniya 26% of the vote.
Meanwhile political analysts claim that youth in the North have voted against the TNA because it has failed to solve the unemployment problem and other issues they face. The beneficiary of this fall-out is Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam.
The TNA which has the majority in 41 councils has called on all parties to allow the party that has the single biggest in each council to govern those areas. Whether the other parties will play ball with this suggestion remains to be seen.
Mathiaparanan Abraham Sumanthiran is a TNA member of Parliament. He is also a top lawyer and one of the closest confidants of TNA leader Sambanthan
For Sumanthiran, the greatest threat of this election result is the re-emergence of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and its fallout on the constitutional drafting process.
“The change that happened in the South is a threat to the rights of the Tamil people. All the Tamil parties must unite to get the federal solution our people want and to face the challenge of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Due to these results, if the draft constitutional process gets stuck, we will have to discuss how we are going to win Tamil people’s Rights” says Sumanthiran who is also the spokesman for his party.
If, as it is most likely, the proposed new constitution making process collapses as a result of the local government election outcome, southern political leaders will be playing straight into the hands of the hardliners in the Tamil community. One of them and perhaps the most vocal is Gajendrakumar Ponnampalam. He is the darling of the hardline Tamil groups in the West that still dream of forming a separate state for the Tamils.
The son of much loved, long-time leader of the All Ceylon Tamil Congress, the late Kumar Ponnampalam, Gajendra’s aim is to be the leader of Tamil nationalists who are against any compromise solution to the Tamil issue.
“Tamil people are for Tamil Nationalism. We criticize the TNA because they support the unitary state and Buddhism. They have betrayed the Tamil community. If the leadership is changed and a new set of nationalist corruption free leader takes over the alliance then we can join with them and work for Tamils” says Ponnampalam.
Although this month’s election was to elect members to sort out local issues, the repercussions of the outcome has shaken the political map of the island to its roots. Most analysts say that if there is no clear solution next year for Tamil grievances, the Tamil National Alliance will not last and will splinter.
People across the country voted against the incumbents who they believe have failed to deliver. The bigger threat is that the moderate forces in politics have received a severe beating and may be tempted to take hardline positions on key national issues with Presidential elections just 20 months away.
If the end result of the local government election is to scuttle the constitutional process and the attempts to foster national unity, then the hardline groups in the South as well as the north will invariably get stronger. The repercussions of that outcome will be felt for decades to come.