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When can minority votes count?

The aftermath of Mahinda Rajapakse’s victory in the Presidential elections has been marked as much by diagnosis of the Tamil boycott as it has by the usual speculation over cabinet reshuffles which follows any election. The Tamil boycott has resulted in severe criticism of the Liberation Tiger of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) by the United States and European Union and equally robust denials of the accusations by the LTTE. Whilst the furore has exercised questions of whether or not Tamils should or could have voted, it has failed to address the central issue thrown up by the whole episode: under what conditions does the act of voting become central to democratic governance? The answer is not obvious.

Democracy’s central demand is that the government’s authority to rule must rest on the consent of the governed. Free and fair elections with universal franchise and without arbitrary restrictions on public office are a central part of the minimum procedural requirements that ensure governments rule by consent. The others include a free and independent media that allows all citizens to hear the full range of opinion and to make their views known. Such conditions are intuitively plausible as minimal requirements of democratic governance. It is also arguable that as Sri Lanka meets many of these conditions, albeit with qualifications, the act of voting equally enables all citizens to hold the government, or more recently the president, to account.

However, the procedural criteria can only guarantee democratic accountability to all citizens if electors and political parties exclude ethnicity from their decisions and campaigns. The minimal criteria of democracy require citizens to choose between alternatives based on rational and objective criteria that provide two generic reasons for adopting a particular policy. Policies can be adopted either because a majority considers them in the public interest or because it is in the personal interests of a particular majority group, for example farmers.

In either case the model ensures that no individual will find themselves in a permanent minority perpetually excluded from the decision making process. In the first case, citizens vote by political conviction, which is voluntary and in the second because of economic interests that can also be changed. For example, socialists in a country that continuously elected neo liberal governments can be said to enjoy a democratic government in so far as they have every opportunity to campaign in favour of socialist policies. Similarly capitalist interests in a country that adopted policies favouring the state sector or small farmers cannot complain of undemocratic or unjust treatment in so far as their fundamental rights are not violated, they have equal access to other means of earning an income and of campaigning vigorously for pro market policies.

Whilst Sri Lanka might meet the minimal procedural criteria for democracy, the processes of electoral choice and party political competition departs radically from norms required to ensure that certain groups do not become permanently excluded minorities. The realities of a Sinhala Buddhist demographic majority and the emergence of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism as the dominant political ideology has meant that governments, and presidents, can be elected by appealing to the this majority alone. Sri Lankan elections, including the most recent, have provided almost textbook demonstrations of the phenomenon of ethnic ‘outbidding’ where parties offer ever more extreme ethnic positions in the hope of gaining the majority of the ethnic vote. Whilst Rajapakse embraced the JHU and JVP, Wickremasinghe – belatedly - wrapped himself in the lion flag while his deputy claimed credit for splitting the LTTE and sinking two of its ships even whilst negotiating with it. The two main Sinhala parties, the UNP and SLFP, which have formed every government since independence, have to trade off pursuing minority votes with losing majority support and invariably opt for the safer option of shoring up their Sinhala vote banks.

Ever since the momentous electoral victory of S.W.R.D Bandaranaike on a platform of ‘Sinhala Only’ in 1956, all Sri Lankan governments have justified their policy programmes, whether neo liberal or socialist, in Sinhala Buddhist terms. This has had specific material consequences. Minorities have been discriminated against in public sector employment and education whilst public sector investment, in infrastructure, public institutions and manufacturing capital has been directed towards the Sinhala heartlands. Even under neo liberal policy regimes, minority areas have been denied the benefits of private investment, because the south enjoys better infrastructure and more careful political attention. Anecdotal observation is enough to confirm the glaring disparities in capital investment between the Sinhala majority areas in the south – west and the minority areas of the northeast. The major ports, tourism related developments, free trade zones, public sector institutions, airports, ports, railway lines and trunk roads are all outside the minority areas.

Sri Lankan governments are therefore not democratically accountable to all citizens, but ethnically accountable to the majority. Sri Lankan politicians habitually confuse democracy with narrow ethnic accountability when they use argue that any constitutional change has to take into account the views and interests of the majority Sinhalese. Under these conditions, the simple but powerful act of voting is insufficient to ensure that governments are democratically accountable to the minorities. Because of their ethnicity, Tamils, Upcountry Tamils and Muslims have found themselves as permanent minorities, structurally excluded from influencing policies that have materially damaged their interests.

The best that minority parties can achieve is to negotiate in coalitions for portfolios that can affect the most important interests of their constituencies. Parties representing Upcountry Tamils typically negotiate for the plantations portfolio while Muslim parties seek the ports ministry. However, this approach has very clear limits. The Upcountry Tamil parties are powerless to demand policy action to alleviate the terrible conditions of estate workers and Muslim parties were unable to secure urgent Tsunami relief for the Muslim majority areas in the east. In short, minority coalition parties are precluded from demanding large shifts in policy that cannot be promoted as furthering the interests of the Sinhala Buddhist majority, even if such policies are arguably for the larger public good.

The discussion on whether Tamils should or could have voted makes little sense unless it is placed within a larger context that examines how far voting furthers democratic accountability. In order to ensure that Sri Lankan governments become democratically accountable to all citizens, regardless of ethnicity, one of two fundamental transformations is required. The first option is the replacement of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism as the mainstream political ideology by a form of political rhetoric that gives equal weight to all the ethnic and religious identities in the island. The second option is a constitutional transformation that recognises and enshrines the plural, even multinational character of Sri Lankan society.

Under the current conditions voting alone cannot bring about either of these changes. Voting is not just an expressive act; it is not just about making one’s views known to others. The act of voting is only meaningful within a larger structure of democratic governance in which citizens can meaningfully hold their governments accountable. Despite the concern over the Tamil boycott, it is clear that Tamil electoral participation cannot effect the structural changes needed to make minority votes really count.