The churning before the elections

December 09, 2017 06:58 pm | Updated 07:31 pm IST

Tamil National Alliance leader R. Sampanthan (FILE)

Tamil National Alliance leader R. Sampanthan (FILE)

Sri Lanka’s likely local polls in early 2018 have aroused the interest of a national election, going by attempts to break old alliances and forge news ones — be it at the national level or at the provincial level.

The latest manifestation of such a political reconfiguration was in the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the main grouping representing the island’s northern Tamils. That the alliance has been experiencing considerable turbulence within is well known, with some of its members turning vocal critics of TNA leader R. Sampanthan who, in their view, is compromising too much with the Colombo administration in matters ranging from reconciliation to the drafting of a new Constitution. They argue that the three years since President Maithripala Sirisena and PM Ranil Wickremesinghe were elected to power, strongly backed by the Tamils, have given them little reason to continue supporting this government.

On the other hand, Mr. Sampanthan and his colleague M.A. Sumanthiran hold the view that the first national unity government that the country’s two main political parties — SLFP and UNP — cohabit is the Tamils’ best bet yet for a long-pending political solution. The TNA leader’s style has been marked mostly by restraint, cooperation and parliamentary interventions, drawing praise from international leaders for “constructive engagement”.

However, intra-alliance challenges centred on Mr. Sampanthan-led Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi’s (ITAK or Federal Party) dominance have been surfacing time and again. With mass support in the north and among Tamils in the east — seen in the September 2013 Northern Provincial Council Elections and the August 2015 parliamentary elections — the ITAK is also the only TNA constituent without a history in militancy. All the other members — the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam, the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation and the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) — had participated in armed struggle. Despite differences among its members, the TNA has held itself together until recently.

Delicate dynamic

The coming local elections are beginning to challenge that delicate dynamic. The EPRLF recently announced that it would contest polls outside the TNA umbrella, along with the near-defunct Tamil United Liberation Front, helmed by senior politician V. Anandasangaree. The other constituents had raised concerns around seat allocation, but later agreed to contest with the ITAK’s symbol after negotiations, a TNA statement said on Saturday. The party is also in talks with the K. Padmanabha-wing of the EPRLF on possible collaboration in the local polls. Its prominent member, Varadaraja Perumal, who was the Chief Minister of the erstwhile North-Eastern Province, and has lived in self-exile in India after the LTTE killed Padmanabha in Chennai in 1990, is currently in the island and exploring the option.

Northern Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran is yet to comment on this political churning. Mr. Sampanthan is keen that the TNA remain a united alliance, at least till the Constitution drafting process is completed. Meanwhile, in the south, attempts to re-unite the two SLFP factions led by Mr. Sirisena and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa have hit a dead end. For political leaders across the spectrum, the local elections are a crucial precursor to national polls to be held in a couple of years. Considering that Sri Lanka has seen no election since August 2015, the stakes are high.

(Meera Srinivasan works for The Hindu and is based in Colombo)

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