As Sri Lanka powerfully consolidates under the Rajapaksa-led SLPP, the Federal Party’s long hegemony of Tamil parliamentary politics is unravelling. The parliamentary election results are unsurprising given the long economic crisis in the making and the broader national developments since the local government election of February 2018, the Easter Attacks of 2019, the decisive outcome in the presidential election late last year and the recent social environment with the Covid-19 disaster.
Nevertheless, as the realities of majoritarian consolidation of state power and the fragmentation of Tamil politics in the North and East sink in, what does the Tamil political landscape look like into the future? In this article, I reflect on the election outcome as they impinge on political polarisation and democratic possibilities within the Tamil polity.
Tamil nationalist crossroads
A historic weakness of Tamil nationalism has been its obliviousness towards the realities of national politics. While Tamils in the North and the East consist now of less than a tenth of the national population, Tamil nationalist discourse since the 1940s has made demands that are far removed from the national and international setting. Even during the decade after the war, Tamil nationalist politics opportunistically peddled and claimed the legacy of the LTTE, as if the LTTE had not been decimated and the war had not been lost. The social, economic and political situation of the long suffering Tamil people, with decades of war-time devastation, has not led to self-critical reflection within Tamil nationalist politics.
In this context, if the local government election of February 2018 were the first signs of the Tamil voters moving from their uncritical allegiance towards Tamil nationalism, the 2020 parliamentary elections have broken the hold of Tamil nationalism and fragmented its political leadership. The TNA is the main casualty of this shift with its strength in parliament reduced from 16 seats after the 2015 elections polling 516,000 votes to 10 seats polling 327,000 votes in the elections last week. While the narrow Tamil nationalist constituencies of the Tamil Congress led by Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam and the newly formed TMTK led by Wigneswaran have come into parliament gaining two seats and one seat respectively, a number of parties aligned with the SLPP and wowing to address economic concerns have also gained parliamentary seats in this elections.
In this election, the TNA belatedly took on the agenda of economic development after ignoring the livelihood and employment concerns of its constituencies for a decade after the war. Will the Federal Party that leads TNA be able to change course, and will it be able to restructure its party bringing in a younger vibrant leadership? Or has it outlived its time, and on the path of collapse like the older parties in the South, namely the UNP and SLFP?
The gains made by the EPDP led by Douglas Devananda in Jaffna and the Vanni, Angajan Ramanadan led SLFP campaign in Jaffna, Pillaiyan’s (Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan) lead in Batticaloa and reception of the SLPP in the Vanni and the East are reflective of a significant shift in Tamil representative politics. The Tamil constituencies are no longer voting solely on the basis Tamil nationalist aspirations and are now forcefully putting their economic predicament to the fore.
In this context, to what extent is the vote for the Ponnambalam and Wigneswaran camps characteristic of a hardening narrow Tamil nationalist base in the urban areas of Jaffna? Alternatively, is it a momentary protest vote against the TNA, with voters saying “let’s give others a chance” as it was widely expressed in local discussions? The answer requires the test of another election.
Political polarisation and democratic possibilities
Given the fragmented electoral outcome, the campaigning, discussions and debates may be as informative as the election results in the North and East. Here, in addition to the constraints placed by the Covid-19 crisis, the election mood of the Tamil population was one of dejection.The strong sense of defeat after the overwhelming Tamil vote against Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the presidential election came to naught, led first to fears of retribution and eventually turned into apathy and resignation.
The Tamil nationalist campaigns of both the TNA and its narrow nationalist critics had little to provide by way of a programme. The TNA sought to deflect its failure to achieve anything tangible by supporting the previous Government, including little to show even of economic gains for the North having supported every Budget, and repeated its call for a strong mandate to take forward Tamil aspirations. The TNA was also caught infighting and back-stabbing as the incumbent parliamentarians attempted to hold their seats in parliament amidst a shrinking support base. The Tamil Congress and TMTK on the other hand continued with their narrow nationalist calls framed around the politics of victim-hood with calls for international intervention.
A nasty offensive targeting TNA spokesperson M.A. Sumanthiran took considerable campaigning energy from both within the TNA and from the TNA’s Tamil nationalist rivals. The perverse and shrill attacks on Sumanthiran in the Tamil public sphere also reflected the emptiness of Tamil nationalist politics that had lost the capacity to debate substantive issues. Indeed, perhaps the only redeeming election outcome in Jaffna was the victory of Sumanthiran, with the reassurance that voters do not fall for the hate campaigns of narrow Tamil nationalists labelling individuals as “traitors”.
"In Jaffna and Kilinochchi, the entry of independent groups drawing on their earlier gains during the local government elections was notable"
In Jaffna and Kilinochchi, the entry of independent groups drawing on their earlier gains during the local government elections was notable. Chandrakumar who had broken away from EPDP has been gaining a base among the marginalised population in Kilinochchi, including those of Up-Country Tamil origin, polled 16,000 votes. And an independent group, including veteran communist leader Senthilvel, took up issues of working people and caste oppression in Jaffna, and polled 5,000 votes. These are democratic tremors of a slow shift towards progressive Tamil politics. What such actors do after the elections in terms of building their social base among the marginalised communities is going to be important for the future trajectory of Tamil politics.
The national political situation is one that is ripe for tremendous ethnic polarisation. Tamil politics may also get sucked backed into the whirlwind of nationalist politics if attacks on minorities continue and majoritarian jingoism is not checked. Ethnic polarisation at the centre may also inflame polarised politics in the periphery, including deterioration of Tamil-Muslim relations in the East and intolerance towards Tamil dissent in the North. On the other hand, the Tamil community has begun engaging a variety of political tendencies and possibilities, which can become the basis for democratisation long denied by the war and its aftermath of militarisation. In the years ahead, as tremendous economic and social upheaval is before the country with the Covid-19 disaster triggered economic depression, Tamil politics is bound to change, but in what direction will depend on the struggles of the people and how they choose to organise themselves.