The deadline for the 2020 Parliamentary elections nominations scheduled for April 25 ended at Noon on Thursday March 19th. Two hours later Sri Lanka’s Chief Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya announced that elections would be indefinitely postponed due to the spread of the dreaded COVID-19 Virus Pandemic in the Island. Mahinda Deshapriya explained to the media the legal position that the Commission could not announce the decision to put off the poll until nominations had closed.
According to media reports, Mahinda Deshapria had explained that the spread of the virus has prevented government employees from carrying out their duties as required and therefore the essential preparations for the poll have not been made.“ Even If the World Health Organisation says everything is clear today we cannot hold the elections on the 25th.It is not logistically possible.” Deshapriya reportedly said. Speaking further Deshapriya said he hoped the Presidential Task Force dealing with the virus would be able to bring it under control, but could not provide specific dates..” “Only COVID19 itself can decide when we can hold the elections,” quipped Deshapriya
It is an open secret that some elements in the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna(SLPP) Govt do not like the idea of the election being put off . They seemed to prefer the option of staging elections amidst adverse circumstances than the postponement option. There were also media reports that some politicians from the SLPP had already started canvassing for votes even before nominations closed. Several opposition politicians have criticised the regime on this account.There has been no effective counter response to such accusations. Even President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s address to the nation was lamentably lacking in articulating a firm stance on Postponing elections..Though mindful of the threat posed by the Corona virus threat, some “Pohottuwa” politicians seem to be more concerned about the negative impact a postponement may have on the electoral fortunes of the party.
Three Influencing Factors
Three factors have reportedly influenced this line of thought. Firstly the SLPP wanted to utilize the popularity wave on which their Presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa rode to success. Although there are signs of diminution, the surge of support still remains and the SLPP would like to have polls while it is at a high. The SLPP needs to acquire a majority – even two-thirds if possible – in Parliament. Therefore holdin elections as soon as possible without delay is most desirable.
The second factor is that the chief opposition United National Party (UNP) is virtually divided at present. Sajith Premadasa and his cohorts within and outside the UNP have formed an alliance to contest elections separately with the telephone as their symbol. Ranil Wickremesinghe and his party faithfuls are contesting separately hoping to enter the house by the Diyawanna-Oya on the backs of the traditional elephant symbol. Strenuous efforts by several persons including former speaker Karu Jayasuriya to reconcile the warring factions have not worked so far. However the unexpected interregnum brought about by the postponement may provide an opportunity for the renewal of reconciliation moves. If an understanding could be reached by the Ranil-Sajith factions, that would upset the calculations of the SLPP aiming to advantageously exploit the divided UNP.
The third factor is the uneasy relationship between the SLPP and SLFP. The SLPP seeks to extract maximum benefit out of an electoral union with the SLFP without giving much in return. Currently the SLPP strategist Basil Rajapaksa has made a deal with the SLFP that is mostly beneficial to the lotus bud. This was possible due to the shameful politics of a shameless Maithripala Sirisena and his dwindling band of acolytes. However there is much resentment over this state of affairs by ardent loyalists of the SLFP. There is the danger from a SLPP point of view that the postponement interlude may provide time and space for a re-think or re-appraisal in SLFP ranks. Since the only predictable thing about Sirisena is his unpredictability, there is always the possibility of the Polonnaruwa politico upsetting the “thambili”cart by changing his mind again. If that happens there could be a decrease in the votes garnered from SLFP circles.
Pandemic in Nascent Stages
While all these considerations are understandable from a political perspective, the idea of opposing a postponement of elections for real or imaginary political advantage cannot be condoned under the present circumstances. What the country and its people are specifically facing is a Pandemic in its nascent stages. If the authorities with the cooperation of the people are able to tackle it effectively, it may be possible to contain the spread and minimize casualties. On the other hand, an incorrect response or wrongful handling of the situation could aggravate the crisis. The country could face a great calamity without adequate resources to cope accordingly.
Conducting an Island-wide Parliamentary election under prevailing circumstances could certainly create the conditions for a further spread of the virus. Even if restrictions and rules are imposed to regulate elections, they cannot be maintained when faced with the imperatives of electioneering and its inevitable consequences. This exercise in futility if attempted can endanger the health of the people. It is the safety and well-being of the people that should be of paramount concern to a Govt and not “politics”. Furthermore conducting an election with conditions and constraints would be a travesty of democracy. It would also confer an undue advantage on the ruling party. Already the President’s address to the nation where slashing of dhal and tinned fish was announced is being criticized as an “election gundu”. As such an election conducted in such an atmosphere and the results – whatever they may be- will have a credibility deficit of massive proportions
Against this backdrop the Elections Commission decision to postpone elections is indeed most welcome though some politicians may not like it. What must be re-iterated is that the overall health and safety of the nation is more important than the petty considerations of parochial politicians. However it must be acknowledged that there were many political parties who called for a postponement of the elections. Among such political parties to have done so is the Tamil National Alliance which is contesting elections in the Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka.
TNA Call For Postponement
The media release issued on behalf of the TNA by its spokesman M. A. Sumanthiran stated as follows – “This statement is being issued consequent to all party leaders of the Tamil National Alliance consulting together:The Tamil National Alliance is concerned about the threat posed to the people by the possible spread of the COVID19 virus in the country. The safety of the public is our paramount concern.We call on the government to take all steps to prevent the spread of this virus. We will extend our fullest cooperation in this regard.For this reason, and for the reason that all democratic aspects cannot be properly be adhered to in this abnormal situation, we request the postponement of the General Elections due to be held on 25th of April 2020.”
The TNA statement was issued on March 16th three days before Mahinda Deshapriya’s official pronouncement postponing polls. This led to silly allegations being levelled about the TNA wanting a postponement because it was afraid to face the Tamil voters.There is a motley crew of motivated individuals in different parts of the world whose mission in life is to attack the TNA. Many of these persons are suspected of being supporters of groups and organizations opposed to the TNA. Thus the TNA call for a postponement gave some ammunition to these key board warriors on social media.
The TNA stood by its position. Though the TNA called for a postponement of polls the party went ahead with the process of nominating candidates as planned. On the 17th the TNA candidates signed their nomination papers at their respective party offices in the Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Amparai,Jaffna and Wanni electoral districts. On March 18th the TNA nomination papers were submitted to elections officials and duly accepted.On the 19th the TNA held a media conference where the postponement was welcomed by the party. TNA spokesman MA sumanthiran also announced that the party would be refraining from campaigning for two weeks and would re-evaluate their position according to the prevailing situation.
Tamil Progressive Alliance
The TNA had earlier contemplated fielding candidates in the Colombo and Gampaha districts. Some had suggested this because a substantial number of Sri Lankan Tamils live in various parts of the Colombo and Gampaha districts. It was felt that even if the TNA failed to get an MP elected, the votes polled may enable the party to increase its quantum of National list representation. This proposal however was jettisoned because of the Tamil Progressive Alliance(TPA) led by Mano Ganesan. Though the TPA mainly represents the Up Country Tamils of recent Indian origin in the Plantation areas and elsewhere, large numbers of Sri Lankan Tamils too have voted for the TPA, notably Mano Ganesan. Hence it was feared that competition between the TNA and TPA will fragment Tamil votes and deprive Tamils of adequate representation. After discussions between the TNA and TPA a gentleman’s agreement was arrived at. Hence the TNA would not be fielding candidates in Colombo or Gampaha.
The TNA is contesting the five electoral districts of Wanni, Jaffna, Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Amparai in the Northern and Eastern provinces. Rajavarothayam Sampanthan, Somasundram “Maavai” Senathirajah,Selvam Adaikkalanathan, K. Thurairajasingham and K. Kodeeswaran will be heading the TNA list of candidates for elections in the Trincomalee, Jaffna, Wanni, Batticaloa and Amparai electoral districts respectively. Apart from Thurairajasingham , the other four were MP’s in the last Parliament. ITAK secretary Thurairajasingham is a former MP, Provincial councilor and Provincial minister.
How the TNA would fare in the forthcoming elections would be of great interest to the globally dispersed Sri Lankan Tamils and many other political observers. The Tamil National Alliance formed in 2001 has now emerged through democratic means as the premier political configuration representing the Sri Lankan Tamils. Therefore it’s electoral performance would be keenly scrutinized due to its political importance. A brief outline of the evolution and growth of the TNA is both interesting and important.
Four Parties Formed TNA
Initially four political parties namely the Tamil United Liberation Front(TULF), the All Ceylon Tamil Congress, the Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation Front(EPRLF) and Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization(TELO) came together and formed the TNA which contested the 2001 polls under the TULF Sun symbol. Gradually the TNA came under the control of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE). This caused among other things, the isolation of the then TULF president Veerasingham Aanandasangaree within the TNA. This led to the break -up of the TULF and exit of Anandasangaree from the TNA. Anandasangaree and the then TULF Secretary-General Rajavarothayam Sampanthan were embroiled in contentious litigation.
When the 2004 elections came the TNA could not contest under the TULF symbol of Sun as it was enmeshed in court proceedings. Sangaree himself had to contest polls under the lock symbol. The TNA opted for the house symbol of the Ilankai Thamil Arasuk katchi(ITAK)known as the Federal Party. It was the ITAK/FP, the Tamil Congress and Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) who came together and formed the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) in may 1976. ITAK/FP leader SJV Chelvanayagam, Tamil Congress Leader GG Ponnambalam and CWC leader Soumiamoorthy Thondaman were elected joint presidents of the new front. The TULF also adopted the controversial “Tamil Eelam”resolution demanding a separate Tamil state comprising the Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka. CWC leader Thondaman opted out of the leadership triumvirate.
Both GG Ponnambalam and SJV Chelvanayagam passed away in 1977. The mantle of TULF leadership was donned jointly by M. Sivasithamparam of the Tamil Congress and A. Amirthlingam of the FP/ITAK. Siv asithamparam became TULF president and Amirthalingam its secretary -general. Meanwhile GG Ponnambalam’s son GG Ponnambalam (jnr) known popularly as Kumar Ponnambalan assumed leadership of theTamil Congress after exiting from the TULF . Several Tamil Congress stalwarts remained within TULF folds. The Ilankai Thamil Arasuk Katchi became the dominant entity within the TULF but the party functioned under the aegis of TULF. However the ITAK/FP though dormant was kept alive as a separate party officially recognized by the elections commissioner.
“Tiger Nominated Agents”
So when the TNA could not contest under the sun symbol it opted for the ITAK symbol of house.The TNA contested the 2004 polls with the backing of the LTTE and won 22 seats. Eelam Peoples Democratic Party(EPDP)leader Douglas Devananda mocked the TNA by saying the TNA acronym stood for “Tiger Nominated Agents”. The greater part of the first decade of the 21st century was a period where the lines of demarcation between Tamil moderates and extremists were greatly blurred.
The LTTE was militarily defeated in 2009. The downfall of the LTTE provided fresh opportunities for reviving representative democracy in the Northern and Eastern provinces. The TNA re-furbished itself and embarked on a course of democratic politics with the objective of restoring Tamil rights in the country. Kumar Ponnambalam’s son Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam split from the TNA and formed the Tamil National Peoples Front(TNPF). The TNPF contested the 2010 polls under the Tamil Congress symbol of cycle. The TNA contested again under the ITAK symbol of House. The ITAK/FP president was R. Sampanthan while Somasuntharam Senathirajah known as “Maavai” Senathirajah was the Secretary. TheSampanthan headed the TNA parliamentary group and functioned as the De Facto TNA leader. Later “Maavai” Senathirajah became ITAK president while K.Thurairajasingham became the secretary
The TNA obtained 14 seats including one on the national list in the 2010 polls. In 2012 the TNA contesting the Eastern Provincial Council under the ITAK house symbol won the bulk of “Tamil” seats.In 2013 the TNA won the majority of seats in the Northern provincial council. Ex-Supreme Court Judge CV Wigneswaran became the chief minister. The 2013 Provincial poll also saw the TULF led by Aanandasangaree and the Peoples Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam(PLOTE)led by Dharmalingam Siddharthan joining the TNA. The TULF departed from the TNA but the PLOTE continues to be in the TNA.
Premier Political Configuration
The TNA got 16 seats in the 2015 elections of which two were national list MP’s. However the EPRLF led by Kandiah Premachandran alias Suresh quit the TNA. The TNA also came first in most of the local authorities it contested in 2018. The party has also played a crucial role in harvesting the bulk of Tamil votes in the North and East for Presidential candidates Sarath Fonseka, Maithripala Sirisena and Sajith Premadasa in 2010, 2015 and 2019 respectively. Thus the TNA had consistently demonstrated that it is the premier political configuration representing the Sri Lankan Tamils.
The TNA today comprises the ITAK/FP, TELO and PLOTE. The ITAK is the dominant partner in this triangular relationship. The majority of MP’s , Provincial councillors and Local Authority representatives have been elected from the ITAK. The junior partners PLOTE and TELO – and earlier the EPRLF – have frequently complained that the ITAK conducts itself in a dictatorial manner without consulting the others adequately. Moreover there are also allegations that the ITAK and by extension the TNA is controlled by a quartet comprising TNA leader Sampanthan, ITAK president Senathirajah, ITAK secretary Thurairajasingham and Spokesperson Sumanthiran. Of this quartet it is Sumanthiran who is attacked the most by rival Tamil parties, Extremist Diaspora groups and social media warriors. Supporters of Sumanthiran say this is because he is the chief deputy of leader Sampanthan and the premier political strategist of the party. They cite the Tamil saying “Kaaitha Maram Thaan Kalladi Padum” meaning only trees bearing fruit are stoned.
There has been much speculation in recent times whether the TNA is a waning or waxing moon. There is a general opinion that the TNA lost out considerably in political terms by supporting the “Good Governance Govt”of Ex-president Maithripala Sirisena and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. This viewpoint is bolstered by the sharp decline of votes received by the TNA at the 2018 local authority elections as opposed to the 2015 Parliamentary polls.In the August 2015 Parliamentary elections the TNA got 515,968 votes amounting to 4.62%. But in the February 2018 Local authority polls the TNA got only 337,877 votes amounting to 2.73%. A drop of nearly 180,000 votes or 34%. Moreover the TNA had come first in forty -one Local authority elections but obtained clear cut majorities in only four.
TNA Experienced Decrease In Votes
While the TNA experienced a huge decrease in votes at the 2018 local polls, the party’s chief political rivals the EPDP and TNPF recorded an increase in votes at the same hustings when compared to the 2015 tally.The EPDP which got 33,481(0.30%) in 2015 doubled its vote tally to 74,128(0.60%)in 2018. Likewise the TNPF which garnered 18,664(0.17%) in 2015 more than quadrupled its votes to 85,198(0.69%)in 2018. Moreover the EPRLF that had split from the TNA , aligned with the TULF and contested the 2018 local elections. The combine contesting as TULF got 72,493(0.59%)
The votes received by the TNA and other rival Tamil parties in 2015 lent much credibility to the thesis that the TNA was losing support due to its perceived affinity towards the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Govt. In the eyes of many, the TNA was seen as an appendage of the Sirisena -Wickremesinghe Govt. From the inception of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government in 2015, the TNA had pursued a non-confrontational, conciliatory approach towards that regime. Though TNA parliamentary group leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan became the leader of the opposition, the TNA co-operated with the Government in many ways like voting for the Budget etc. The TNA even voted against the no-confidence motion brought by sections of the opposition against the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Despite much criticism from hawkish elements on either side of the ethnic divide, the TNA adopted this collaborative relationship with the ruling regime for the primary purpose of enacting a new Constitution. The TNA had been hopeful that a new Constitution formulated through a consensual approach with the full participation of the Tamil MPs in the Constitution drafting process could help resolve the Tamil national question through an effective power-sharing arrangement providing maximum devolution possible to the pre-dominantly Tamil Northern Province and the Tamil majority Eastern Province.
TNA Did Not Seek Ministerial Office
Unlike other political parties representing the Muslim and Up Country Tamil communities the TNA did not seek ministerial office in the “Yahapalanaya”Government that it helped to set up. The TNA was unable to show the fruits of cooperation by way of jobs,schemes or projects because it did not have ministerial portfolios. The TNA mainly sought to redress Tamil grievances and accommodate legitimate Tamil aspirations through cooperation with the Government. Although there had been some progress on issues like return of military held lands back to civilian owners and release of Tamil detainees etc there was little progress in the prized objective of the TNA namely Constitutional reform or a formulating a new Constitution. To the TNA in general and Sampanthan in particular it was a single item political agenda -a new Constitution.
However the progress on the Constitution front was slow and not up to the mark. Moreover there was no progress at all after the Steering Committee Interim Report was presented and debated upon in 2017. There was a general impression that the Constitutional process was paralysed after the interim report had been presented. This affected the TNA badly in the local polls.
The TNA was not able to deliver on both fronts. On the one hand it was unable to provide jobs or development projects to benefit the people. While on the other hand there was a stalemate in the Constitution making process. The TNA was unable to effectively present strong proof to the people that its cooperation with the Govt was indeed paying dividends. The TNA was depicted by its hardline opponents as either a diabolical or naive entity. At worst the TNA had sold out like a charlatan and at best the party had been taken for a ride like a fool.This impacted to a great extent in the local poll results.
The increased support for the hardline TNPF showed that nationalist elements of the Tamil polity were irritated by the TNA’s perceived collaboration. The increase of support for the EPDP showed that Tamils who wanted development were also disappointed with the TNA.
Blatant Hatred For The TNA
If the 2018 local authority election results were proof of the decline of support for the TNA, other political events indicated that opposition to the party could grow. Dissidents and break-aways from the TNA have grouped together and forged an alliance. Whatever their professed objectives for such an alliance, it is crystal clear that the motivating ideology -if one may describe it so – is blatant hatred for the TNA. In fact such shared antipathy may be the glue that binds such disparate forces together.
Retired Supreme Court Judge C.V. Wigneswaran was brought into politics by Sampanthan and Sumanthiran of the TNA. He was elected as chief minister of the Northern Provincial council in 2013 . After his term of office expired Wigneswaran struck out independently and formed the Thamizh Makkal Koottani. Ananthy Sasitharan the spouse of former LTTE senior leader Ezhilan was brought into the TNA by Senathirajah. She contested and won a seat in the Northern provincial council and even served as a provincial minister for a while. After the provincial council was dissolved Ananthy Sasitharan formed a one-woman party known as Eezhavar Suyaatchik Kazhagham . Former parliamentarians MK Sivajilingam and KN Sri Kantha left the TELO and formed the Thamizh Thesiya Katchi. Ex- MP Suresh Premachandran of the EPRLF was a founder member of the TNA. As stated earlier he quit the TNA with his party after the 2015 Parliamentary poll.
Currently the parties led by CV Wigneswaran, Suresh Premachandran, Ananthi Sasitharan and the Sivajilingam-Sri Kantha duo have cobbled together an alliance called the “Thamizh Makkal Thesiya Koottani” or Tamil Peoples National Alliance(TPNA). The TPNA is headed by CV Wigneswaran. An eleven member governing council under the chairmanship of Wigneswaran has been set up. The council has six members from Wigneswaran’s Thamizh Majjal Koottani, Two each from the EPRLF and Thamizh Thesiya Katchi and one From Ananthy’s party. Candidate lists for elections will be selected according to 5-2-2-1 ratio. The TPNA is contesting the Jaffna, Wanni and Batticaloa districts.
Tamil Peoples National Alliance
It is rather obvious that the Tamil Peoples National Alliance (TPNA) is targeting the Tamil National Alliance(TNA). Already TPNA leaders like Wigneswaran, Ananthy and Premachandran are openly attacking the TNA notably Sumanthiran. Interestingly enough the birth of TPNA has also incurred the wrath of the TNPF led by Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam. Several broadsides have been fired at each other by the TPNA and TNPF. While hitting out at each other on the one hand, both parties are united on the other hand, in attacking the TNA. The EPDP led by Devananda too is likely to target the TNA fiercely.
Even though the elections have been postponed indefinitely, it is certain that polls would be definitely held in the future. Under these circumstances how will the TNA fare at the forthcoming elections?
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at email@example.com
This Article was written for the DBS Jeyaraj Column in the “Daily Mirror” of March 24, 2020. It can be accessed here: