Irony but true. If President Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the November polls near-exclusively on the majority southern Sinhalese votes, it is also for them to now decide if the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) or an amalgam of Tamil and other minority parties will have the ‘Leader of the Opposition’ post after the parliamentary polls, now fixed after two postponements, for 5 August. It all depends on how much the Sinhalese and Sinhalese-Buddhist voters in particular prefer one of the two UNP factions between them and both viz the ruling SLPP, whose public face is Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The question of TNA getting the ‘Leader of the Opposition’ honour flows from Alliance leader and political veteran, R Sampanthan’s prediction that they would get 20 seats from the North and the East. The last time the TNA had the ‘Leader of the Opposition’ honour, that too in the dissolved Parliament, they did not earn it. Because President Mitithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe decided that despite their contesting the 2015 parliamentary polls against each other, they would form a farcical ‘Government of National Unity’ (GNU), Speaker Karu Jayasuirya was left with little choice, so to say.
Going by the traditional polling pattern of previous parliamentary polls, the Sinhalese voters may decide to have President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to have a Parliament supportive of his schemes and leadership. Unless there is a tie, where the Tamil and Muslim MPs, along with their Upcountry Tamil brethren and other smaller parties, become relevant, it is for the Sinhalese voters to choose the nation’s Prime Minister, as indirectly as they chose the President through direct vote. This time, by making their choice, especially in the case of UNP and SJB, they may also be voting on if the TNA qualified to have the Leader of the Opposition post.
The moment the Rajapaksa faction split away from Sirisena’s SLFP with their fellow-travellers, the TNA lost the position. Thus, 1977 became the only time that the Tamil TULF had the Leader of the Opposition job for itself – and through an honourable process. But that was under the old first-past-the-post scheme, not the current ‘proportional representation’ system, where it is difficult for an established party like the UNP and the breakaway SJB now to draw too low a score. But neither is incapable of achieving the rare feat this time, and the Sinhala voters too may not be too enamoured to displease them.
The problem for the TNA is also from within the much-divided Tamil polity. Going by Tamil media reports, or their reportage of various electoral campaigns and related news conferences, there are at least two sharp contenders for the TNA’s unchallenged claims to being the ‘sole representatives’ of the Tamil people, post-war, post-LTTE. TNA’s former Northern Province Chief Minister C V Wigneswaran is heading the Tamil People’s Alliance (TPA). This should not be confused with another TPA, the Tamil Progressive Alliance, headed by former Minister Mano Ganesan, in the Upcountry Tamil areas.
Like Wigneswaran, Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam, leader of the forgotten All-Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC), is also heading the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF). Then, there is the EPDP, headed by incumbent Minister Douglas Devananda, an alliance partner of the ruling SLPP in the Government, but not in the polls. That has left the SLPP too in the fray separately, so have the UNP and the SJB. Thee are other political parties and Independent groups, too, all fighting for the Tamil votes and seats.
The rivals’ hopes, hence claims, are based on the TNA’s relatively poor poll percentage in the all-island local council elections of February 2018. The party polled only around 35 per cent of the Tamil votes. In many of the local government bodies, the TNA could have its Mayor with the support of the LTTE one-time rank rival of the LTTE.
But then that has become sort of a pattern to Tamil voting. They have all their internecine quarrels in the local government polls, have some of it in the Provincial Council election (in terms of poll percentages), as was witnessed in the only one thus far in the Northern Province (2013) and in the East, too. But past voting patterns have shown, for most Tamils, it is still TNA, when it comes to any national vote – both presidential and parliamentary polls.
Nothing explains this Tamil preference for the TNA in national votes than the post-war presidential polls of 2010, 2015 and now 2019 – and also the parliamentary elections that followed the former two in the past, and the last one, close to a year down the line. Sampanthan’s confidence of the TNA winning 20 seats this time is also based as much on such superstition or statistics, as you may wish to call it.
The TNA’s calculations are also based on those similar to what supporters of the SLFP’s when it comes to the party getting a two-thirds majority in the 5 August elections. Given the strong opposition to the TNA, and also the steep divisions between the rivals, here the TPA and the TNPF, the TNA hopes that the other two will also cancel out each other, and at the same time confuse the non-TNA Tamil voters, as different from anti-TNA voters, if any.
Under-cutting each other
Indications however are that some of the TNA leaders/candidates are already under-cutting one another, or each other in some specific cases, to ensure the defeat of their ‘internal rivals’ as much as ensuring their own seats. Many TNA MPs are there since the LTTE brought them together in Elections-2001, and have collected a lot of moss around their feet and at times, their bodies aa a whole.
So much so, there is already some speculation within the Tamil community if particular leaders would be able to retain their own seats, hence other positions that they hold within the party and some of their untested standing within the larger community. The last time it happened, Suresh Premachandran, leader of the EPRLF partner in what was then a four-party TNA amalgam, lost the last parliamentary polls, in 2015, and ended up quitting the Alliance. Suresh and the EPRLF of now with the Wigneswaran-led TPA.
Among the existing leaders of the TNA, Alliance spokesman M A Sumanthiran was forced into a larger-than-life acrimony only weeks ago, over his purported remarks over the LTTE and violence, in an interview to a Sinhala channel. Leave aside TNA’s rival, every top leader of the three residual alli8es in the combine, including his own ITAK chief, Maavai Senathirajah, was even more vociferous. Having concluded the seat-sharing talks long ago and without much acrimony, they all were targeting the future leadership of the TNA, either for themselves or one or the other from among them.
All of it only in the possibility of Sampanthan saying enough is enough after the parliamentary polls and steps aside as the TNA leader, just as he had handed over the ITAK top-job to Maaval after the 2015 parliamentary polls. But then, there are also those in the North especially, who have been eyeing the chief minister’s job, whenever PC polls are held, and want to ensure that all prospective competitors from among the TNA’s parliamentary nominees are eliminated – by their election as MP this time round.
(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: [email protected])