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The paradox of the Tamil vote

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) last week announced their decision not to back either of the major Sinhala coalition parties contesting this week’s Presidential elections. The organization argued that in its view neither the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) nor the United National Party (UNP) would successfully implement the structural changes that were required to deliver the dividends of the peace process which had eluded the residents of the areas the LTTE controls. The organization’s position has been misinterpreted, intentionally in some quarters, as further evidence of its continuing effrontery to democratic principles.

The Tamil residents of Sri Lanka have participated in the island’s various democratic processes since it achieved independence from the British in 1947. The dawn of Sinhala nationalist politics within years of the island’s independence sparked a countdown to an ethnic confrontation - which the island’s Tamil speaking minority sought to challenge, initially at least, through legal and political recourse with an admirable Gandhian faith.

Two decades later, after a series of political treaties repudiated by Sinhala leaders unwilling to appear weak to their followers, the rules of the democratic process were immutably altered. The introduction of the 1972 Constitution by leaders of the then ruling Sinhala party disposed of the safeguards to protect the island’s minorities embedded within the Soulbury Constitution and deemed to be unalterable by Her Majesty’s Privy Council in Great Britain. The new republic’s Constitution would establish hurdles which would render the minority vote superfluous to the main issues of the island’s politics. The combined minority population of the island is under twenty-five percent, making the attainment of the sixty-six percent majority in Parliament necessary for reforms possible only in the realms of political theory.

In the subsequent three decades, the island’s Tamil minority have been trapped in a democratic purgatory, having enough in numbers to balance the nationalist contenders, but never enough clout to alter their distressing predicament. Despite persistently backing the more dovish of the main Sinhala contenders, the demographics of the island ensure that no party is, in any case, able to dominate parliament to the extent required for constitutional reform.

Sri Lanka’s 2005 Presidential election places the Tamil electorate in their familiar, unappealing position. Should the Tamil community take their lead from the LTTE’s statements and choose not to participate in the election, the likely favourite is Mr. Mahinda Rajapakse. However, with Christians concerned about the anti-conversion bills and other minority anxieties the outcome is a very close call.

Despite lacking the leadership experience of his opponent, the UPFA candidate in his inaugural presidential campaign is proving to be a serious contender for the post - an admirable achievement considering that he is following in the footsteps of President Chandrika Kumaratunga. In keeping with their nationalist manifesto, Mr. Rajapakse and his party have also chosen to ally with the Marxist-cum-nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Buddhist nationalist Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). The distinguishing features of the UPFA’s electioneering seem to be their no-nonsense stance in dealing with the LTTE. More recently, the party has attempted to allay the concerns of the International Community, insisting that despite its alliances with extremist parties, it will in fact pursue peace with the Tamil community, albeit in its own uncompromising style.

The previous permutations of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led coalition governments headed by President Kumaratunga, applied a similarly non-conciliatory approach, illustrated best by her disastrous ‘war-for-peace’. Her inaugural People’s Alliance (PA) coalition government, which came to power in 1994, was itself an example of the failings of the Sri Lankan state, as far as the Tamils are concerned. The President was brought to power in a landslide victory, with considerable support from the island’s minorities based upon her promises of peacefully resolving the conflict. Having failed to reach a compromise with the LTTE which would be palatable to the country’s parliament, Mrs. Kumaratunga engaged in the most bloody phase of the ethnic conflict for the next seven years. President Kumaratunga’s political transformation from the princess of peace to warrior queen dealt another blow to Tamil confidence in Sinhala leaderships.

In contrast to the PA, Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government UNP-led, has arguably enjoyed the greatest success of contemporary Sri Lankan governments in challenging the LTTE’s military and political ascendancy. The then Prime Minister, whose party took power in 2001, successfully engaged the LTTE in a peace process which allowed the space for the government to rebuild the country’s debilitated military and its crumbling economy. The failure (or, from a Sinhala nationalist perspective, the success) of the Wickremesinghe administration, meanwhile, to deliver any benefits to the residents of the Northeast have been exhaustively outlined in the columns of this newspaper. Most notably, the UNP, like many of its predecessors, failed to deliver on deals it signed with the LTTE aimed at returning normalcy to residents of the Northeast. The sole redeeming feature of Mr. Wickremesinghe’s tenure may be the aversion of an all out war; however, this is more likely attributable to the military’s incapacitated condition than the state’s benevolent intent.

However, Sinhala leaders cannot be blamed solely for their belligerent strategic decisions. The reality is that the island’s present political system was constructed to ensure only a united Sinhala polity could deliver any concessions the island’s minorities. However, Sinhala parties sitting in opposition are frequently seduced by Sinhala nationalism when approaching the ethnic question. Whilst in opposition to Mrs. Kumaratunga, Mr. Wickremesinghe’s party obstructed – on three separate occasions - devolution proposals submitted by Mrs. Kumaratunga’s government. The charge, as ever was that her government was being too accommodating of Tamil demands. That her proposals had already been rejected by the LTTE for being woefully inadequate was irrelevant. Similarly, President Kumaratunga rejected the UNF government’s notion of providing the LTTE with two-year administration in the North-East - despite claiming to have offered the Tigers a similar ten year deal during her government’s tenure. The dynamics of Sri Lankan politics ensure that at least one of the major contenders will seek the powerful nationalist lobby in its pursuit of the control of parliament.

Nevertheless, throughout the contemporary political history of the island, the Tamil lobby has repeatedly backed the more dovish of the main Sinhala candidates. The resulting delicate balance of power in parliament has impeded any structural changes to Sri Lanka’s constitution that may deliver a resolution to the minority’s grievances. From a Tamil perspective, a decision to cease participation in process where they have no influence appears long overdue.

One may counter that by repudiating their democratic rights, the island’s Tamil community is spurning its only peaceful means of stimulating change. However, it has been demonstrated that there are unassailable limits to the impact the Tamil electorate can have on the island’s political system. Continued engagement in this pointless political process can only detract from more inventive efforts to seek a genuine and permament solution to the underlying issues.

The most puzzling aspect of Sri Lanka’s political landscape is not that the Tamils have finally decided to boycott the process, but the consistent and inexplicable assertion that the more hawkish coalition would enjoy a resounding victory without the dovish Tamil counter-balance. In spite of Mr. Wickremesinghe’s resounding strategic successes against the LTTE, his party has had to revert to crudely hardline rhetoric to retain any chance of returning to power. By contrast, Rajapakse is a major contender chiefly as a result of his unwaveringly hardline positions and his alliances with the right-wing JVP and JHU.

Populist ethnicity-based politics are not the preserve of the rival political campaigns this week alone. Perhaps the most revealing development on the Southern political landscape is the exponential rise of the JVP over the past decade based on the twin policies of promoting nationalist solutions to the ethnic conflict, whilst simultaneously promising to confer the economic benefits of a socialist state to its voters.

Despite being the pro-peace camp’s choice, Mr. Wickremesinghe’s credentials as a patriotic leader are impeccable. His government reversed the deteriorating military position of the Sri Lankan state through a series of political maneuvers – as the UNP has proudly pointed out. His only mistake, relative to Mr. Rajapakse, appear to be politically engaging the LTTE in doing so. And yet, the country’s Prime Minister, along with his uncompromisingly hawkish position, appears to be enjoying the support of a substantial part of the Sinhala people. Joseph de Maistre famously noted that ‘every nation has the government it deserves.’ The Sinhala nation has repeatedly and enthusiastically chosen populist hawkish leaders unwilling and, in any case, unable, to deliver a lasting peaceful solution to the ethnic problem. And this week, whoever it picks, it will do so again.