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Impossible Dream

The outcome of Sri Lanka’s latest parliamentary elections, in which the ruling Sinhala party secured a near two-thirds majority, are held by some to make possible the constitutional changes that would attenuate and address the island’s acute ethnic divide. No such thing will happen. The central driver of Sri Lanka’s politics has, since independence, been Sinhala majoritarianism, a reality simply ignored by proponents of the arguments presented for such optimism (arguments which, in any case, ring utterly hollow given the politics and events of recent years). The point is strikingly underlined, moreover, by how 2010’s elections are a replay of 1956’s.

 

That President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led coalition would convincingly win this month’s elections was never in doubt. The fait accompli was already reflected in the feeble campaign run by the main opposition United National Party (UNP). The focus on whether the UPFA gets a two-thirds majority in the 225 seat house turns on this being the threshold to change the constitution.

 

What is ignored in this logic is, had they wanted to, the SLFP and the UNP could have at any point in the past six decades made some changes, no matter how trivial, to accommodate the basic Tamil grievances. They never have. Instead they have consistently sought to pursue Sinhala nationalist goals more stridently than the other, a dynamic that has been succinctly labeled ‘ethnic outbidding’. It is worth remembering that when then President Chandrika Kumaratunga invited Norway to facilitate peace talks with the Tamil Tigers, the UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was amongst the first to denounce it in Parliament.

 

The UPFA almost secured the two-thirds majority, and it did so on the basis it has defeated the LTTE and, therefore, seen off the Tamil demand on the state to share power. The UNP had nothing to say on the ethnic question, let alone power-sharing. These dynamics are identical to 1956. The then SLFP-led MEP coalition came to power on a single pledge: to replace English with Sinhala as the official language. Then too the UNP had no reply - it belatedly joined the anti-Tamil bandwagon, but most Sinhalese had rallied to the SLFP.

 

Conversely, the Tamils voted overwhelmingly in 1956 for the Tamil-led Federal Party, which was insisting English be kept as the official language. (Out of 95 seats, the SLFP-led MEP took 51 seats, the FP 10 and the UNP just 8). In this month’s election the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) secured 14 seats. It did so, moreover, campaigning explicitly on a federal solution.

 

The comparison between 1956 and 2010 is not some inane exercise in pattern matching. Rather, it is to argue that central dynamic in Sri Lanka’s ongoing crisis is majoritarianism facilitated by electoral democracy: the Sinhala vote is swayed primarily by anti-Tamil sentiment. (That the JVP lost several seats this month should be no surprise: its core platforms of Sinhala nationalism and anti-market economics have been more convincingly taken up by the UPFA and Rajapaksa.) Moreover, every attempt by Tamil leaders, ever since the fifties, to negotiate a solution with their Sinhala counterparts have come to naught in the face of Sinhala public pressure, often vented through the Sinhala opposition.

 

These dynamics are recurrent and will not change from within. While the past few decades have been marked by processes of globalization, Sri Lanka’s greater integration with international spaces have not produced an enlightened liberal politics. Indeed both this and globalization itself have been strongly resisted, not only by the mass of Sinhala voters, but by the main Sinhala parties. Even the UNP, understood as a market-friendly, and thus liberal party, has followed a stridently Sinhala nationalist path when in government. President J. R. Jayawardene’s regime led other developing countries in liberalizing the economy, but was explicitly Sinhala nationalist. It also oversaw the July 1983 pogrom. Ironically its legacy was a cynical attempt to secure Indian support for the war against Tamil militancy: the 13th amendment. President R. Premedasa’s idea of governance speaks for itself.

 

In short, any expectations that President Rajapakse’s regime is going to pursue a path of ‘reconciliation’ or even the slightest variant of power-sharing are wholly misguided. The core driver of Sri Lankan politics is Sinhala nationalism, a mass ideology that predates independence, and which has since been entrenched in the state. It is the central obstacle to the constitutional recognition of the Tamils, and other Tamil speaking peoples, as having a rightful place, equal to the Sinhalese, on the island. And until it is confronted and checked, a truly democratic and peaceful Sri Lanka integrated into a global liberal order will remain an impossible dream.