N Sathiya Moorthy
The none-too-unanticipated situation in which the smooth power-transfer in government is being followed by a similar leadership-change in President Maithripala Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) has a message for the parliamentary polls, due anytime before March 2016. Considering that the re-united SLFP has decided to sit in the Opposition could mean that the nation may have returned to the days of the cohabitation era of 2004-05, when SLFP’s President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga (CBK) and UNP’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe wrecked the boat from within.
The SLFP merger has ensured that at least in name the party has a longer stint at the presidency, since CBK came to power first in 1994, to be followed by Rajapaksa and now Sirisena. President Sirisena was a leader without a party. Rajapaksa had the party but the nation’s voters have rejected him. They needed each other more than needing their poll-time allies.
Some of Rajapaksa’s UPFA allies have begun complaining about his handing over the government meaning parliamentary majority without a fight. Others want him to continue as UPFA leader and prime ministerial candidate whenever parliamentary elections are held. Possibly alive to the possibilities, one-time Rajapaksa aide and present-day Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera of the UNP have followed up on his coup-bid charge with a formal police complaint.
The possibilities are many. President Sirisena who had called for a national government, has either stop talking about it or is working on it, if the SLFP re-union is seen that way. Though he has declared his intention not to contest for a second term, he does not seem too eager to hand over power eternally to his UNP rival of decades. He does not want to go down in history as the one who sounded the death-knell for the party or so it seems.
The parliamentary poll whenever held, thus promises to be tempting and challenging at the same time. Based on the presidential poll results, a media analysis has suggested that the Sirisena camp, as it stood at the time of presidential poll could manage 119 seats in the 225-member Parliament. The Rajapaksa-led UPFA would manage 106. The respective figures include National List MPs numbering 15 and 14. The SLFP merger would change all that. The decision for the SLFP to sit in the Opposition with outgoing Leader of the House and Senior Minister, Nimal Siripala de Silva now as the Leader of the Opposition means that the re-united SLFP does not want to be seen as having the cake and eating it, too or does it?
The emerging proposition promises to be more exciting than the existing alliance, built near-exclusively for the presidential polls almost exclusively it would seem. Should this combine split for the parliamentary polls and it should not surprise any then the SLFP-UPFA could still retain its identity and maybe even parliamentary seat-share, to a substantial extent. The calculations for the non-UPFA coalition, substantially under the UNP, may not then have the projected numbers. The JVP outside-supporter for the Sirisena candidacy would continue to stay away from this combine but may still consider other alliance options. The JHU would be in greater demand than its vote-share would dictate to buttress the UNP combine’s image on the ethnic front in the Sinhala-Buddhist strong-holds on the one hand, and to deny the electoral comfort zone to them if it decided to go with the reunited SLFP.
The UNP would have other issues too to consider. It may be a preferred ally for the TNA and the SLMC, among the parties and groups of minority communities than a reunited SLFP, where Rajapaksas’ shadow would be seen, at least until President Sirisena decided otherwise if at all. The UNP has good working equations with the SLMC down the line, and has long-term ambitions for Tamil votes and seats in the North.
The CWC’s failure to deliver Upcountry Tamil votes to President Rajapaksa has open up the possibilities, also for the same reason in the immediate context. All this have thrown up a situation in which the Sirisena camp’s promise to abolish the Executive Presidency within the first 100 days in office and also introduce electoral reforms may come under the scanner, more than the minorities in particular may have been prepared for post-poll.
Protection for minorities
The Executive Presidency scheme has not provided the promised say for the ethnic minorities in the affairs of State unless they collaborated and cohabited with the majority Sinhala polity. Yet in many cases as now, though not always, it ensured a decisive say for the multi-denomination minorities with a decisive say in the choice of the Executive President, under a direct-election scheme. On the ground, the proportionate representation scheme as it worked and was worked witnessed that the elections for parliamentary and provincial councils were mainly fought by Sinhala parties in the Sinhala heartland for the Sinhala vote. Any say for the minorities in government-formation and participation was incidental to proceedings, depending on how the Sinhala-Buddhists voted.
Elections-2015 has focussed again on the duality of the Sri Lankan polls-driven ethnic politics, or ethnicity-driven poll politics. The minorities have provided the votes that counted in Sirisena’s election but the capacity for President Rajapaksa to lose more Sinhala votes than against Sarath Fonseka in 2010 also mattered. Given the exclusivity of region/sub-region centric parliamentary polls, particularly in the case of the Sri Lankan Tamils (SLT) and the TNA, the Sinhala vote may count more than the minority votes, at least in the elections if not, later.
The presidential polls witnessed the Tamils and the Muslims in the North and the East adding a high number of 650,000 votes more to Sirisena, against his final victory margin of 450,000. Add the 125,000-plus more votes that the Upcountry Tamils of Indian Origin (IOT) gave Sirisena in a single district of Nuwara Eliya, defying the CWC under then Minister Arumugan Thondaman, the figure goes up to 775,000.
The unmentioned highlight of this election could be the wholesale defection of much of the near-five per cent Sinhala-Catholic votes, who too seem to have felt alienated from the Sinhala-Buddhist majority, possibly for the first time. A closer scrutiny of booth and sub-divisional level analysis would prove as much. So would such studies of denominational Tamil-speaking voters’ preference scattered outside of the North and the East, particularly in urban centres like Colombo.
The four denominational minorities may have contributed to the Sirisena victory margin more than twice that the final results showed. Barring multi-ethnic, middle class-driven urban Colombo, Sirisena’s native Polonnaruwa and a few other scattered electoral districts, the rest of the Sinhala South only brought down the minorities-given victory margin possibly by more than half. It was thus not surprising that President Rajapaksa conceded defeat long before the final results were known. For him to return a third time, he would have required a fair share of the Tamil votes in the North and a substantial share of the Muslim votes across the country and a majority of the spread-out Sinhala-Catholic votes.
The relatively low turn-out in the minorities provinces (72.3 per cent) of the North (69.43 per cent) and the East (75.04 per cent) did contribute to pulling down the national average to 81.5 per cent, after many Sinhala areas had polled upwards of 85 per cent, and at times closer to 90 per cent. Yet, the national figure was still more than the past averages of 75 percent, which again had been caused by the LTTE-ordered poll-boycott in the Tamil areas (2005) and the post-war, lower turn-out (2010).
It is in this context that the minorities, particularly of the SLT, Muslims and the Upcountry Tamils, need to engage one another and also the rest on ways to guarantee their continued say, however limited and circumstantial, in the nation’s elections and politics. The discourse assumes greater urgency in the light of President Sirisena’s reiterated commitment to abolish/modify the Executive Presidency implying the possible discontinuance of the nation-wide one-man-one-vote electoral scheme.
It is not about retaining the Executive Presidency. It is more about retaining and institutionalising the post-poll national mood of effective and reconciliation. The new electoral scheme thus should not take away from the minorities whatever little that they have already. So what if they had backed the Sirisena candidacy that had otherwise promised the wholesale abolition of Executive Presidency at times, and major modifications, otherwise.
While it may not make sense to have nation-wide elections for a toothless president if Executive powers of the government are going to be vested in the Prime Minister and Cabinet, what may really be required is to place limits on the authoritative and/or autocratic ways of any president in office. It does not stop with individual(s). It owes even more to the national character that demands absolute re-orientation but has continued to shy away from an absolute need for an anti-defection law.
While reviewing aspects of the promised constitutional changes to the scheme and the system, the new government should not shy away from reviewing their commitment to replace 18-A with a 19-A, modelled on the 17-A that the Rajapaksa Government rendered redundant. It is not about Election Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya’s statement that the nation did not require 17-A institutions to conduct a free and fair poll.
It is more about larger issues of conferring Executive powers on independent institutions that are not accountable to Parliament and thus the people, as the elected Executive whether of the US or the Westminster or any new hybrid model. It is even more about the impossibility of the situation when successive governments could not get their political act together for Parliament to nominate independent members, whose very choice could not have been independent in the first place.
In this background, all initiatives for the promised national reconciliation rests in the Sirisena-Ranil leadership, and it cannot wait. They cannot put greater weightage just now on their Sinhala-centric electoral politics of the future, but would have to work with the minorities in particular and other aggrieved classes though not always individuals, with a special set of issues and problems to lend a loud voice to their silent vote. It has to be a two-way street, of course, with the minorities not resting on the laurels and expect the Sinhala polity and more so the Sri Lankan State to do their bidding, or cry wolf all over again. The Upcountry Tamils are all but mainstreamed, and have come to see themselves as a periphery of the Sinhala-Buddhist majority.
The Sinhala-Catholics used to be in the mainstream but not in the periphery. That the promised papal visit did not make any difference to their changed voting-style should set the rest thinking. In the absence of clarity on what would now make the difference, particularly to the new generation(s), the mainstreaming of the Muslims could require innovative ideas and conscious efforts.
The problems of and with the SLT is more complex over the short, medium and the long-term. Victims of war, physically, and war-psychology, otherwise, they have reiterated their faith in the TNA in fuller measure than even when voting the party to power in the Northern PC. The expectations of the Tamils thus from the Sirisena-Ranil duo is thus more. Their commitment to the TNA’s line of united Sri Lanka is even more.
It is anybody’s guess why the TNA did not say that it had freed from the LTTE when negotiating with the previous regime. There is also the question why the TNA brought in accountability issues half-way through negotiating a political solution within a united Sri Lanka as if it was an after-thought. The reluctance and reticence of the Rajapaksa government to continue negotiating with the TNA after point may have owed its share.
It is also unclear why the TNA should not join the government at the Centre now, particularly since President Sirisena has been repeatedly calling for a national government. They cannot continue to miss the bus time and again and also continue to build their ethnic castles in the air, skilled exclusively on what they do not know about government and governance than what they may have known, if at all.
The TNA having said that they are freed of the LTTE while declaring support to the Sirisena candidacy, the Sri Lankan State and the Sinhala polity should trust them at it and hold them to that declaration and trust. The Sinhala polity cannot continue using the unresolved parts of the ethnic issue as a convenient pawn in their electoral games and political play-outs.
Having obtained a resounding local Tamil attestation for its decision to participate in the presidential polls and also support one of the two Sinhala candidates the TNA now will have to act firmly against internal distracters and fairly by the Sinhala polity and the Sri Lankan State. For starters national consensus to what is acknowledged by all as Sri Lanka’s national problem can be attempted only through a national discourse whether through a PSC or any other functional and at times formal mechanism.
Having stayed out now, the TNA should consider joining the government at least after the parliamentary poll, and hold itself as much accountable to national reconciliation and nation-building as the rest. Its approach in the matter should be the same as its responsibility to winning the Tamils rights without any accountability in turn to the Sri Lankan State in particular.
The immediacy of the post-election national reconciliation demands that the new government at the Centre starts possibly with naming a new, civilian governor to the North, and also order a review of the military-presence and participation in government. The list also includes fast-tracking the review of detained LTTE cadres and the army vacating Tamil homes and lands, among others.
Having backed the Sirisena candidacy only on governance issue the TNA cannot now plead ignorance to his other election-time commitments, particularly to sensitive sections in the Sinhala South on the unitary State on the domestic front, and the UNHRC probe into accountability issues externally. Now that the TNA has made the point, the temptation for separatist sections of the SLT Diaspora, to hijack the moderate Tamils’ agenda as ever, and internationalise the ethnic issue even more is what it needs to fight more vigorously than any or all of the election battles nearer home!
(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: sathiyam firstname.lastname@example.org)