Sri Lanka’s first ever Northern Provincial Council completed its five-year term last week. About 25 years after the erstwhile North-Eastern Council lapsed, people living in the Tamil-majority areas had propelled their preferred political representatives to power in September 2013, sensing new hope post-war. Just as the Tamil National Alliance’s (TNA) first brush with governance ended recently, the island’s northern Tamil polity found itself further fragmented.
A day after completing his tenure, outgoing Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran launched the Thamizh Makkal Kootani, parting ways with the TNA. The new political formation, he said, would uphold the fundamentals of Tamil nationalism.
His valedictory speech, which was an attack on the Colombo administration as well as the TNA in almost equal measure, had a clear message: he does not need the TNA, which introduced him to politics, any more. The CM’s address was only a culmination of the many differences he has had with the Alliance’s leadership, whose engagement with Colombo he often despised as a “sellout”.
With his departure, the TNA was left with members who appeared more inclined to continue negotiating with the Centre, until Friday’s dramatic developments. Meanwhile, the TNA and its leader R. Sampanthan have not commented on losing their first chief ministerial candidate, who has built some support especially in Jaffna town. With provincial elections out of sight at the moment, may be that is a concern that can wait. Until Friday, TNA leaders were preoccupied with another dilemma.
Two crucial votes were scheduled in Parliament. One on the budget and the other on a new counterterrorism law that seeks to replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). From the time Sri Lanka’s national unity government came to power in 2015, with substantial support from ethnic minorities including northern Tamils, the TNA, which sits in Opposition in Parliament, has voted for all the budgets tabled.
In part, the TNA sought to reassure the coalition government, which was prone to frequent turbulence within, so that it can deliver on its 2015 poll promises. The decision was also driven by TNA leaders’ desire to demonstrate two-thirds majority in the House that it saw as a useful precursor to passing the new Constitution promised by the President and Prime Minister. With little political backing from the two main leaders, the constitutional reform process hit a roadblock.
In regard to the counterterrorism law, with some lawyers and activists pointing to serious deficiencies and regressive provisions in the proposed replacement, the TNA was left with a tough choice. Voting against it would mean that the draconian PTA, which the TNA’s leaders have wanted repealed for long, will remain. However, neither matters now. The TNA is in an unexpected, and far more urgent quandary as the coalition government it supported all through fell on Friday.
President Maithripala Sirisena prorogued Parliament on Saturday until November 16, a day after he appointed former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister in place of Ranil Wickremesinghe. Mr. Wickremesinghe has claimed that he has the majority in Parliament. Much is expected to transpire over the next fortnight, including political horse-trading. There are already some signs of possible defections from one camp to the other. Two weeks is a long time in politics. In the event of a floor test, when the Parliament reconvenes, the TNA’s 16 members will prove crucial in the 225-member House.