By Javid Yusuf
The run up to the Eastern Provincial Council Elections has once again exposed the lack of a clear political vision or strategy among Muslim political actors.
In the weeks leading up to nominations there were a number of statements from Muslim politicos as well as news items which painted a conflicting picture of what the Muslim political parties had in mind for the forthcoming elections.
The Eastern Province being an area having an almost equal mix of the three communities living in Sri Lanka, one would have thought that the R word-Reconciliation- would have been the fundamental premise on which all election strategies would have been designed. The Eastern Province remains the best Province to implement a Reconciliation strategy that would inspire the rest of the country and one would expect the Muslim politicos to give the lead in this regard. But this does not seem to be happening.
The main focus seemed to be forging alliances rather than principled politics based on clear and definite policies. What is surprising is that not only Muslim politicos and civil society but even the TNA got drawn into this game. The TNA was enticed into hoping that it could work out a deal with the SLMC despite having the experience of being taken for a ride repeatedly by the SLMC whenever an Election is around the corner.
It has become customary for the SLMC whenever any election comes around to make statements that they are considering various options with regard to the Elections, the idea being to gain leverage with one of the principal National Parties. In the early years of the SLMCs existence they held themselves out to be the kingmakers in National elections. Today they are more modest in their claims and have identified themselves only as kingmakers in the Eastern Provincial Council elections although given their dwindling support over the years even this may be difficult to establish.
This time too once the announcement was made, articles began to appear in the newspapers stating that the SLMC was considering three options: to contest alone, to contest in alliance with the TNA or to contest as part of the UPFA . In the meantime a joint statement dated July 6, 2012 issued by the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama and the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka claimed that they had succeeded in brokering a deal in which the three Muslim political parties in the UPFA would contest together.
Based on the past conduct of the SLMC, no student of politics in Sri Lanka could really have had any doubts as to what the SLMC would eventually do. The SLMC from the time of its inception has been a party which has thrived on patronage politics , perks and Ministerial positions which have taken precedence over any policy based decisions. If they contested in coalition with the TNA or alone they risked losing their official positions in Government which is unthinkable in terms of the SLMCs political culture.
Besides if they contested as part of an alliance with the TNA, they would have to support a merged North Eastern Province which would have placed the SLMC in an awkward position with the Muslim voters of the East. Thus it was inevitable that they would end up contesting on the UPFA ticket.
The UNP too has been critical of the SLMC and other religious and civil society organisations for what they allege is an attempt to broker a deal between Muslim political parties to support the Government. Kabir Hashim the UNPs Muslim Vice President stated “we have noticed some parties with vested interests and some religious organisations have requested Muslim parties to unite and all this was a devious plan to ensure the Government could obtain the votes of the Muslim community”.
This was a reference to the joint statement released by the All Ceylon Jamiayyathul Ulama and the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka which said that agreement had been reached for Muslim Political Parties to contest the Eastern Provincial Council Elections under one banner although the SLMC reneged from the Agreement soon thereafter. UNPers have also been irked by the President of the All Ceylon Jamiayyathul Ulama actively supporting the UPFA candidates at the 2010 Parliamentary Elections and the Colombo Municipal Elections thereafter.
Strangely although the UNP criticised the efforts of the two organisations, the All Ceylon Muslim League which is the Muslim political wing of the UNP is also a member organisation of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka and is therefore a party to such decision.
It was not clear what actually the two organisations were trying to achieve by getting the Muslim Political Parties to contest under one banner as the statement itself did not clearly set out the objectives of the exercise except a vague reference “to work together to achieve the aspirations of the Eastern Province Muslims.” At most such a strategy may have marginally increased the number of Muslim representatives but not necessarily the quality of Muslim members elected. Past experience has shown that without a committed and dedicated leadership the problems of the Muslims of the Eastern Province have not been addressed.
What these aspirations were had clearly not been worked out. Any workable and principled arrangement must necessarily have first had agreements on fundamental points affecting the Muslims to which the parties had agreed. To cite one example the National Muslim Congress is firm on the view that there should be a demerger of the North and East while the SLMC holds the view that there should be a non contiguous Muslim unit within a merged North and East.
Besides, an exclusive Muslim list of candidates is divisive and goes against the spirit of interdependence and coexistence that is absolutely necessary for a reconciliation process. It would be far better for the people of the area to have lists of candidates from all communities campaigning on an agreed policy and program of work rather than communal lists which can drive the communities further apart.
The next few days should be interesting with the unfolding events indicating which trajectory the election campaign in the East will take. The SLMC General Secretary Hassan Ali has stated that the SLMC will contest jointly with the UPFA only if a Memorandum of Understanding is signed confirming that a separate Administrative Unit for Muslims will be carved out and that the land issues of the Muslims will be resolved. So far there is no sign of any MOU and it is very likely that the SLMC will go along with the UPFA with or without a MOU.
The two national parties the SLFP and the UNP have over the years abdicated their responsibilities to the Muslim voters of the East by neglecting to strengthen the party organisations at the behest of the SLMC. It is the oxygen provided by the national parties that has helped the SLMC to survive in the East and peddle its brand of communal politics without any commensurate benefit to the people.
The remarks made in the Panditharatne report with regard to the UNPs contribution to strengthening the SLMC in the East would equally apply to the SLFP. The UPFA needs to ensure that the Muslim candidates from the SLFP are elected in the forthcoming elections because in the long run the SLMCs loyalty to the party it is allied to is always short lived and will depend on the opportunities outside.
However what is important at this juncture of our country’s history is that the Muslims work in the mainstream with other like minded Sinhalese and Tamils on a common program which ensures the rights of the Muslims and other communities. The ghetto mindset that will inevitably be encouraged by an exclusive list of Muslim candidates will neither benefit the Muslims nor serve the National Interest.