Tamil Eelam would bloom – Sampanthan’s Fear

By Dinesh D. Dodamgoda –

Dinesh D. Dodamgoda

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader R. Sampanthan’s recent remarks on the ‘lotus bud’ (Nelum Pohottuwa) received a wider attention of many concerned parties. Sampanthan stated, “If you (Nelum Pohottuwa party attached to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa led alliance) persist with this agenda, I want to tell you (Tamil) Eelam will bloom not on account on us, but on account of your lotus bud”.

Sampanthan’s verbal attack on Rajapaksa came as a response to Rajapaksa’s pre-poll campaign statement in which he said, “A Tamil Eelam would bloom following the local authority election.” According to Sampanthan, Rajapaksa’s campaign is a “malicious, vicious and fallacious propaganda campaign”.


Sampanthan’s remarks were not a mere response to Rajapaksa’s statement. It came in the backdrop of a situation where Gagendrakumar Ponnambalam, leader of the Tamil People’s Front (TPF), Suresh Premachandran, leader of the Eelam People Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), and Chief Minister of the Northern Province, C. V. Wigneswaran are spearheading a radical campaign, attacking TNA’s position on the Tamil nationalist issue. The trio even set up a civil society organization, Tamil People Council (TPC), with a common agenda to attract wider support from the Tamil people, and the TPC completely rejected the interim report on the Constitutional Assembly that the TNA led by Sampanthan supports.

Sampanthan in his Thai Pongal message ‘prayed’ for a new Constitution in which a new power-sharing mechanism is being proposed. It can be assumed that Sampanthan fears Rajapaksa’s propaganda campaigns in the South would intensify TPC leaders or similar entities to lead radical campaigns in the North against the TNA and hamper the support that the TNA aimed to gain in favour of the new constitution and the proposed power-sharing mechanism.

Sampanthan’s fear is not unreasonable. Yet, his fear sheds light on the fragility of the proposed power-sharing mechanism.  The mechanism was developed based on a consociational model that was theorized by Arend Lijphart. The proposed power-sharing mechanism has four main features – a grand coalition government led by ethnic elites representing different ethno-segments of society, territorial autonomy based on ethno-segments, ethno-segment proportionality in the voting system, government and public sector, ethno-minority vote that enhances difficulties in changing the proposed mechanism.


Lijphart’s consociationalism was very popular and adopted by many in finding sustainable solutions to cultural conflicts. Lijphart listed in 2002 sixteen consociational regimes in the 20th century. However, Lijphart’s consociationalism has failed to deliver sustainable results due to inherent weaknesses of the mechanism.

One such weakness caused Sampanthan’s fear – emergence of radicals that can derail the grand coalition agreement. However, Sampanthan will not be able to overcome his fear even after his prayer for a new Constitution was answered as the problem of radicals is not confined to the pre-agreement period but even after entering the agreement, since consociational mechanism is not immune to the problem of radicals. Some of the critiques of Lijphart, for example, Philip G. Roeder, Alvin Rabushka and Kenneth A. Shepsle identify the said weakness as ‘the second-generation problem’ in a context of post-agreement period.

Their remarks were made after a careful observation of consociational regimes that entered into power-sharing agreements. Roeder observes, even the ethnic elites were initially sincere in their commitment to power-sharing, a majority group tends to be inclined to focus on the problems of governance and maintaining political power in bringing decisive governance when the contract becomes a reality.

It results in raising questions as to the majority group’s continuing commitment to the principle of proportionality in civil service recruitment, regional allocations, or representation in the decision process. In such a context, the original power-sharing agreement may become difficult to maintain (Though it was not a consociational agreement, even Yaha Palana agreement became difficult to maintain. Even the leaders who were sincere in their commitment to bring Yaha Palanaya in the beginning, could not maintain the agreement). As a consequence, power-sharing institutions may be threatened when ambitious, up-and-coming leaders with more radical demands engage in outbidding behaviour to outflank the moderate elites within their own community.

On the other hand, political leaders of the majority would also find it difficult to uphold a long-term commitment to the original power-sharing arrangement when they come under pressure from their constituencies as they see the power-sharing agreement as a disadvantageous arrangement to their narrow self-interests. The situation would allow more radical leaders to emerge and further weakens the ethnic balance of power. For example, Serbian leaders who succeeded Josip Broz Tito in Yugoslavia were outflanked by more nationalistic leaders like Slobodan Milosevic. Subsequently, Milosevic also was outflanked by more radical leaders such as Vojislav Seselj and made holding the federation more difficult.

Sampanthan’s prayer

Therefore, Sampanthan’s fear is a real, and provides us a valid reason to reconsider the effectiveness of the proposed power-sharing mechanism. It is important to note that Sampanthan’s fear will not fade away even if his Thai Pongal prayer for a new Constitution was answered.

(In addition to ‘the second-generation problem’, there exist more weaknesses in the consociational power-sharing model, although this article does not attempt to discuss them.)

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