Friday, December 18, 2009

Lanka: North-East Tamils may tilt polls balance

P.K.Balachandran | ENS - The indigenous Sri Lankan Tamils living in the Northern and Eastern provinces may tilt the balance in the January 26 Sri Lankan Presidential election which is expected to be a close contest between Mahinda Rajapaksa, the incumbent President, and Gen.Sarath Fonseka, the joint opposition candidate.

In the last Presidential election held at the end of 2005, Rajapaksa won by a very narrow margin, getting 4,887,152 votes as against 4,706,366 secured by his rival, Ranil Wickremesinghe of the United National Party (UNP).

The margin was narrow despite the fact that Wickremesinghe’s popularity was thought to be at its lowest at that time.He had been dubbed as a pro-LTTE and pro-West politician who would divide Sri Lanka as he allegedly tried to do as Prime Minister during the 2002-2004 Norwegian-brokered and West-backed peace process. Rajapaksa, on the other hand, was portrayed as a quintessential Sinhalese nationalist.

Rajapaksa would have lost if the LTTE had not unofficially enforced a partial but significant boycott in the Tamil-dominated areas of the North and East. Only 1.2 percent of the 700,000 voters in Jaffna district, the Tamil political heartland, voted. In the more ethnically mixed electoral district of Wanni, polling was better, but still poor, at 34.3 percent. In Batticaloa, nearly 50 percent stayed away. Voting was good only in areas in which Tamils were a minority, as in Trincomalee (63.8 percent) and in Amparai (72.2 percent).

Had the Tamils voted normally, Wickremesinghe would have won. Tamils were considered his pocket borough because of his 2002 peace initiative and accomodation with the LTTE.


This time round, the opposition is in a better position. Firstly, unlike Wickremesinghe, Gen.Fonseka is an acknowledged Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalist, and is also a military hero who defeated the LTTE.Secondly, unlike Wickremesinghe in the 2005 election, Fonseka is expected to be on the offensive pointing an accusing finger at Rajapaksa for corruption, nepotism, and inability to deliver to the Sinhalese masses the much expected peace dividend. Thirdly, the LTTE is not there to prevent the North-East Tamils from voting. Fourthly, the largest Tamil party,Tamil National Alliance (TNA), is not contesting to take away the Tamil votes. Fifthly, Tamil notice that Fonseka is backed by their favourite, Wickremesinghe.

The Tamils do have a grievance against Fonseka for vanquishing the LTTE, killing most of its top leaders, and leaving the Tamils leaderless and shorn of pride. But they blame Rajapaksa more for their plight because it was his iron political will which kept the international community at bay and enabled the army to decimate the LTTE.


However, Fonseka has significant political problems.Rajapaksa is accusing him of being in the company of “anti-nationals” like the UNP which had pooh poohed the war effort, describing it as unwinnable. Rajapaksa, on the other hand, has an unsullied record of being a fearless and uncompromising nationalist.

Rajapaksa is saying that Fonseka will not be able to implement his radical promises to the Tamils because the ultra-Sinhalese nationalist JVP is in his camp.


Since 2006, the opposition had consistently lost rank and file supporters, MPs and parties to the Rajapaksa camp.. Both the UNP and the JVP are badly split, with the dissidents being with Rajapaksa. The Indian Tamil party, Ceylon Workers’ Congress, is still with Rajapaksa, as are the majority of Muslim leaders who crossed over Most of the known Sinhalese nationalists are also with Rajapaksa.

The Rajapaksa camp is spreading fears of a military coup after Gen.Fonseka wins the elections. It is argued that, for Fonseka, a coup would be the easiest way to put an end to contradictions that would certainly arise between him and the motley crowd of political parties propping him up now.

It is too early to say with certainty as to how these various factors will play, and affect voting. But what can be forecast is a close contest in which the north eastern Tamils will decide who the winner is.


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