For almost all Opposition parties in Sri Lanka, Wednesday’s general election spelt huge losses in the face of the landslide victory secured by the ruling party of the Rajapaksas. But one group stood out.
The Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA), which represents Malayaha Tamils in the island’s Central, Uva, Sabaragamuwa and Western Provinces, retained all six seats in Parliament. While the number is small compared to the coveted two-thirds majority that the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) secured in the 225-member House, it is not insignificant.
How did the TPA’s MPs make it, despite being part of Sajith Premadasa’s weak Opposition alliance and despite a contest with powerful rivals in the Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC) aligned to the ruling SLPP?
Only two of the CWC’s candidates won, including Jeevan Thondaman, son of former Minister and popular politician Arumugan Thondaman, who suddenly passed away in May.
“Trust is the word. That is the reason. The TPA’s achievements in the last four years have outnumbered all past performances of other parties,” said Alliance leader and former Minister Mano Ganesan, who won from Colombo district.
Rewarded for work
Mr. Ganesan’s colleague V. Radhakrishnan from Nuwara Eliya agreed. “People have recognised our work. If they were not happy, we wouldn’t be back,” he said.
The TPA could not do much to ensure tea estate workers got the minimum wage despite their incessant protests spanning three years, but its MPs appear to have scored in other areas concerning the million-strong community. Development, for instance.
The Alliance shifted the politics of Malayaha Tamils — including some 1.5 lakh people employed in the tea estates — from one of “patronage to [one of] rights”, according to Palani Thigambaram, a former Minister widely credited with building houses in the estates.
“We worked to address our people’s right to land and housing, we helped them get original deeds for the first time. We created a dedicated authority for Hill Country development and the people have appreciated that,” he said, adding: “some people think voters are fools. But the fact is voters know what they are doing. It is important to pay attention.”
Trust built over 4 years
But for this trust built over four years, it may not have been easy for the candidates to win, especially from Mr. Premadasa’s Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), which has been on a weak footing since last November’s presidential poll.
Nine months after Mr. Premadasa lost to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the SJB secured just 54 seats, about 24% of the votes, in Wednesday’s general election. Its parent party, the United National Party has been reduced to a single seat.
It is both consistent work on the ground and efforts to bring about structural changes that the people have acknowledged, according to B. Gowthaman, a lawyer and civil society activist. “The TPA’s work especially with land rights and bringing local government authorities to work inside the estates, appealed not only to the workers, but also to the intelligentsia within the community, like teachers and other professionals,” he said.
While much of TPA’s accomplishments are linked to the Ministries its MPs held, they are not afraid to sit in Opposition now. “We will play a constructive role in Opposition, keeping in mind the interests of the people we represent. We will also work with all Tamil and Muslim parties along with progressive minded Sinhalese, keeping the Sri Lankan identity in mind,” said Mr. Ganesan, a vocal legislator in the last Parliament.