Sri Lanka’s northern Tamils, who delivered a clear message to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the November presidential election by emphatically voting against him, gave a different, yet very strong message to their own Tamil leadership in the recent general election.
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the main grouping representing Tamils of the north and east, with 16 seats in the last Parliament, secured only 10 seats in Wednesday’s parliamentary poll, as disillusioned voters decided to give others, including smaller Tamil nationalist parties, a chance.
The All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC), led by Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam, won two seats, while former Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran, who broke away from the TNA, won one seat in Jaffna.
The split in votes was not unexpected, given the fragmented political landscape in the north and east. But significantly, the Tamil voters chose at least four candidates from parties aligned to the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), including Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) leader Douglas Devananda, Angajan Ramanathan of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan or ‘Pillayan’ of the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP).
“In the north-east as a whole, there is a clear shift towards parties aligned to the government in Colombo. We must take note of that,” said TNA spokesman M.A. Sumanthiran, addressing a press conference in Jaffna on Friday.
Observing that the Tamils were faced with a “big challenge” he said the TNA was willing to work with other MPs, including from rival parties, and called for their cooperation.
Blaming the TNA for this shift, Mr. Wigneswaran, who was Chief Minister of the TNA-led Northern Provincial Council for five years, said it was the Alliance’s failures that led people to politicians linked to national parties. However, Mr. Wigneswaran said he was willing to work with fellow MPs on a “policy basis” to take on Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarianism that now had “unprecedented power” in Parliament, with the Rajapaksas’ evident two-thirds majority.
Mr. Sumanthiran observed that the TNA had suffered a “serious setback” in its constituency, and called for serious introspection on the party’s political work as well as conduct amid growing differences within. Even this poll campaign was marked by mudslinging and targeted attacks by some candidates on fellow contestants. “Clearly, the people’s faith in the TNA has come down. We need to reform ourselves and make it more people-centric in order to emerge strong again,” said Mr. Sumanthiran, who won one of TNA’s three seats in Jaffna.
A decade’s wait
People’s waning faith in the TNA comes after a decade’s wait for a political solution, which the former government backed by the Alliance promised but failed to deliver. Many found its initiatives on accountability unconvincing, efforts at a constitutional settlement half-hearted and programmes for economic recovery slow.
Further, with post war development efforts by successive governments at the Centre proving inadequate or thoughtless, the war-affected Tamils’ economic distress grew over the decade — seen in stifling debts, lack of housing, prevalent joblessness and neglected livelihoods. The TNA-led Northern Provincial Council too is accused of being indifferent to this reality. Observers note that a growing discontent perhaps steered voters towards parties aligned to the Centre, that distributed aid and jobs through carefully cultivated patronage networks.
Mr. Devananda, for instance, drew considerable support for his grass-roots work that spoke to people’s everyday concerns, according to Kadirgamar Chandrabose, a voter in Jaffna’s Achchuveli town. “For people tired of hearing the TNA’s big promises that were never kept, the [Mr. Devananda’s] EPDP’s outreach brought relief,” he told The Hindu days ahead of the elections.
Going by the voters’ mandate for the TNA and the rest, it is hard to conclude that they chose economic priorities over political rights. But clearly, in their divided vote, they have reminded their political leadership that rhetoric without action or policy without targeted programmes cannot help them cope with the aftermath of a brutal war.