The outcome of Sri Lanka’s August 5 general election had few surprises. The Rajapaksa family is decisively at the country’s helm for the next five years. The fragmented political opposition is struggling to come to terms with their decimated parties and in some cases, sealed fate.
In the north, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which almost solely represented Tamils living in the north and east for a decade since the country’s civil war ended, is swallowing a bitter pill. Its presence in the 225-member Parliament, where the Rajapaksas have just garnered a formidable two-thirds majority, has diminished from 16 to 10 seats.
Tamil voters in the north not only chose three candidates from hard-line Tamil nationalist groups critical of the TNA, but also elected four candidates from parties aligned to the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP or People’s Front) of the Rajapaksas. In fact, they gave Angajan Ramanathan of the SLPP-aligned Sri Lanka Freedom Party the highest share of votes in Jaffna.
While the TNA has ceded ground to rivals on either side, political observers have read the outcome as an unmistakable shift. Voters, they note, have moved away from their chief political concerns — which the TNA sought to foreground — to their growing economic distress that the TNA is accused of ignoring.
Letting down its own people
It is not hard to appreciate this reading, given that the TNA-led Northern Provincial Council squandered its first, big opportunity to govern the province in 2013. The irony of then Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran, who spearheaded its failure and subsequently broke away from the party, contesting separately and winning a seat in this poll is another matter. But it doesn’t change the fact that the TNA, as an influential Alliance and a collective of legislators, was mostly apathetic to its people’s everyday misery. It was neither able to envision a revived economy to help families cope with the war’s cruel aftermath, nor willing to course-correct after the Northern Provincial Council’s wasted term ended in 2018.
In the four years of the Maithripala Sirisena-Ranil Wickremesinghe government, the TNA privileged a political solution by way of constitutional reform over everything else, including war-time accountability that the southern polity is reluctant to honestly or fully confront. Its leaders’ efforts towards a new Constitution cannot be rubbished in retrospect, for the TNA, like many others, believed that the prospects for such reform were greater under an unprecedented ‘national unity’ government that Sri Lanka’s two main national parties cohabited. They gave the former government a real chance. Except that the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government badly let down the TNA, on whose support it managed to survive its term. In turn, by ambitiously putting all its eggs in one basket, the TNA let down its own people.
The youth were jobless, while their parents’ livelihoods rapidly dwindled. Farmers were hit by alternating droughts and floods, while fisherfolk, faced with conflicts big and small, struggled to stay afloat. Scores of women in the north and east, sole breadwinners in their families, suffocated in predatory debt and some tragically ended their lives. In 2016, Sri Lanka’s poverty headcount was highest in the Northern and Eastern provinces, according to the latest Household Income and Expenditure Survey.
An unhelpful separation
The grave economic conditions of Tamils living in the north and east, and the apparent shift in their voting pattern in this poll, might lead analysts to frame their mandate as one merely for urgent economic relief.
It is true that the TNA, controlled largely by Tamil elites, is paying a huge price for separating the political and economic realities of its electorate, focusing narrowly on one while neglecting the other. But to construe the vote against the TNA in some constituencies in favour of candidates aligned to the Rajapaksa administration as a shift away from long-pending political demands is at best reductive and at worst dangerous.
Those averse to the Tamil community’s historic demand for greater political autonomy may readily embrace this economic logic to dilute or even disregard their persisting call for political rights. Prominent supporters of the Rajapaksa regime have already sought abolition of the provincial council system and the 13th Amendment. An outcome of the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987, the Amendment remains the only legislative assurance till date for devolving powers to the provinces. It is part of the few incremental, but crucial, gains made from the 1980s, against the tide of Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarianism that swept the island since Independence.
The Tamil leadership, including the TNA, may deem the 13th Amendment insufficient but none would disagree that it is necessary. After all, at the heart of the Tamils’ long-pending demand is the legitimate desire for greater control of their lives. To be able to actively shape their political and economic destinies is first and foremost a democratic right, but also a vital check against a majoritarian state deriving power and legitimacy from its core ethno-nationalist base.
Moreover, political empowerment is not reducible to economic progress, but economic development — which the Rajapaksa brothers have promised to now expedite — will prove futile unless citizens have the political agency to inform the process. For development to speak to the needs of the people, devolution of power is central, not incidental. Devolved political power alone can ensure citizens are able to build, strengthen and access local administrative structures, institutions and expertise that are crucial to thoughtful development and its sustenance.
It is over a decade since the TNA unequivocally abandoned past calls, including from the LTTE, for separatism. The Tamil people have no appetite for another armed struggle and the southern leadership knows this well. The Tamil people’s quest for justice post-war is different, as they navigate their realities with resilience and pragmatism. To them, justice is not merely a set of issues on a checklist or a United Nations resolution to be addressed sequentially. It is about dealing with the destruction and trauma of the past, the livelihood distress and lingering militarisation of the present, and the challenge of a just and dignified future.
The Tamil voters’ message to both national leaders and their own elected representatives has been unambiguous in every crucial election post-war, about their political and socioeconomic priorities — be it the 2013 northern provincial election, the 2015 presidential and parliamentary polls, the 2018 local government polls, the 2019 presidential election and the recent parliamentary election. Are the leaders willing to listen?