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Tamil parties circles as Tamil National Alliance in crisis

With the announcement of local elections across the island, the Tamil National Alliance, the largest alliance representing Tamils in the North-East, is in flux over divisions between and within the constituent parties.

An announcement on December 11 by MP and spokesperson M A Sumanthiran, a divisive figure within the Tamil polity, that the TNA’s largest constituent party Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK) would contest the upcoming election independently has not been received well by the remaining alliance partners TELO and PLOTE.

The two parties wrote to ITAK demanding that the TNA, which has so far existed as an unregistered entity, be registered as a political party in its own right. This was rejected by the ITAK central committee in its meeting in Batticaloa on January 8. The ITAK has pointed out that even during the period when the TNA was intimately connected with the LTTE before its demise in 2009, the alliance was not registered as a political party.

In response, TELO has stated its intentions to register the TNA as a political party regardless of the ITAK’s future within the alliance.

Commentators have also noted a divide within the leadership of the ITAK, with veteran Mavai Senathirajah’s faction holding talks, including with TELO and PLOTE independently of Sumanthiran and leader R Sampanthan. It is rumoured that neither MP was invited to the ITAK’s annual conference in Jaffna.

Meanwhile, both TELO and PLOTE have held talks with MP C V Wigneswaran, leader of the TMTK. Wigneswaran himself was introduced to politics by ITAK as the outsider candidate for chief minister of the Northern Province, winning a landslide. He later left the party over political disagreements, which included a failed attempt by the TNA to depose Wigneswaran. Despite criticisms of the Northern Provincial Council, which was dissolved in 2019, Wigneswaran remains a popular politician in the North, winning a seat in parliament on his party’s first election outing in 2020.

Another popular politician, former Jaffna mayor V Manivannan has now joined forces with Wigneswaran, joining the TMTK this week. Manivannan narrowly missed out on a parliamentary seat with the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) in the 2020 general election.

While other prominent Tamil politicians such as Ananthy Sasitharan, M K Sivajilingam, and Suresh Premachandran of EPRLF also look to form alliances in advance of elections, ITAK has also rejected the idea that new parties be allowed to join the TNA, leaving the door open for an alliance of Tamil nationalist parties looking to break the ITAK’s dominance in the Tamil homeland.

Meanwhile, Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam’s TNPF remains a quiet observer to the chaos. The 2020 election result yielded two MPs, showing a party finally on the ascendancy after breaking away from the TNA over its support of former Sri Lankan army chief Sarath Fonseka in 2010. Despite the surrounding unrest, the TNPF will be confident of its position and unlikely to enter into alliances with other parties.

While the TNA and particularly ITAK for many years depended on its near-monopoly of Tamil nationalist politics to defend unpopular positions and partnerships, the parliamentary election of 2020 saw the party lose six seats. As the alliance continues to descend into factional sniping, the many breakaway Tamil nationalist parties and politicians will be looking to show the Tamil electorate that alternatives do exist.

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