Jaffna Mayor Election Defeat Triggers Crisis in TNA-ITAK


The Tamil National Alliance(TNA) is the premier political configuration representing the Tamils of North -Eastern Sri Lanka. The TNA comprising the Ilankai Thamil Arasuk Katchi(ITAK),Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization(TELO) and Peoples Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam(PLOTE) has ten MP’s in the present Parliament. Of these nine are elected parliamentarians while one was appointed as a National list MP. Six including the nominated MP are from the ITAK while the TELO and PLOTE have three and one MP’s respectively. The TNA contests polls under the House symbol of its chief constituent the ITAK.

Although the TNA tally dropped drastically from 16 in 2015 to 10 in 2020, the alliance continues to retain its dominant position in Tamil electoral politics. Parties opposed to the TNA such as the Eelam Peoples Democratic Party(EPDP), Tamil National Peoples Front(TNPF), Tamil Peoples National Alliance(TPNA),Tamil Makkal Viduthalaip Puligal(TMVP), Sri Lanka Freedom Party(SLFP) and Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna(SLPP) have together eight Tamil MP’s from the North and East in Parliament. While being lesser in numbers to the TNA, these MP’s are themselves politically divided and seemingly incapable of aligning as a united bloc to challenge the TNA.

Furthermore the TNA is the only Tamil Party to have MP”s from all five electoral districts in the Northern and Eastern provinces. The TNA has three each elected from the Jaffna and Wanni districts and one each elected from the Trincomalee and Batticaloa districts. No Tamil MP was elected from the Amparai district. However the TNA national list MP was specifically appointed from there to represent the district in Parliament.

Even though the reversals suffered at the 2020 Parliamentary poll has contributed to an erosion of its monolithic image, the TNA continues to remain the chief political formation representing the Sri Lankan Tamils. The TNA may have lost its sheen at the 2020 Parliamentary hustings but certainly not its foremost position. However recent events have indicated that the TNA may soon lose this position too due to internal dissension.

Inner-Party Divisions

The TNA is heading for a major crisis due to internal differences and rivalry. These inner-party divisions came to light in the 2020 election campaign and were a major cause for the TNA’s poor electoral performance. Thereafter the continuing intra-TNA tensions simmered and exploded last week. The flashpoint of tension was the election of a new Mayor by the Jaffna Municipal Council. The TNA candidate who was the incumbent Mayor lost by a single vote resulting in Jaffna having a non-TNA Mayor.

What has happened in essence seems to be this. The TNA with 16 of the 45 Jaffna Municipal councillors, formed the Jaffna municipal administration in 2018. The ITAK was allocated the Mayor post while the Deputy-mayor was the given to the TELO. Emmanuel Arnold of the ITAK was elected TNA Mayor of Jaffna. The budget presented for 2021 by Mayor Emmanuel Arnold was defeated twice in succession this year. Legally, Arnold was compelled to forfeit (Deemed to have resigned) his position and a new election was scheduled to be held.

ITAK President and former Jaffna district MP Somasundaram Senathirajah known as “Maavai” wanted to nominate Emmanuel Arnold again as Mayoral candidate. Maavai was supported in this by his political strategist and former Northern Provincial Council chairman C.V.K.Sivagnanam, Jaffna District MP Dharmalingam Siddharthan and many Jaffna Municipal councillors.However some other Jaffna Municipal Councillors as well the two Jaffna district MP’s elected from the ITAK (the third Siddharthan is from PLOTE), Sivagnam Shritharan and Mathiaparanan Abraham Sumanthiran were not in favour of Arnold.

Somasundaram Senathirajah

Sumanthiran opined that it would be ethically improper and morally questionable to re-nominate Arnold again as Mayor. Both MP’s suggested that another Jaffna MMC Solomon Cyril be nominated instead. Incidently Cyril is also a former Parliamentarian. TNA Parliamentary group leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan and ITAK Acting General secretary Dr.Pathmanathan Sathiyalingam were also supportive of Cyril’s candidacy.

Furthermore some non -TNA parties were opposed the ousted Arnold becoming Mayor again and had pledged to support any other ITAK/TNA candidate other than Arnold. Under these circumstances, It was pointed out to Senathirajah that there was a very strong possibility of the TNA candidate being elected Mayor without a vote, if Arnold was not nominated. Moreover another potential “danger”was also pinpointed. If the ousted Arnold became Mayor again and submitted a budget for the third time which got defeated the entire council was deemed dissolved.

Emmanuel Arnold

The “Maavai” Senathirajah -CVK Sivagnanam duo went ahead with their plans despite the contrarary position taken by an influential section of the ITAK as well as some non -TNA parties. At a hastily conducted meeting held in Jaffna with Senathirajah presiding, it was decided that Arnold would be the TNA Mayoral candidate. Prior to the decision being formally approved, Emmanuel Arnold made an emotional speech imploring that he be re-nominated as Mayoral candidate. Arnold’s candidacy was approved by the ITAK,TELO and PLOTE at the meeting. All TNA councillors were instructed to vote for Arnold. The media was also officially informed of Emmanuel Arnold’s candidacy. Thus those opposing the nomination of Arnold were presented with a “Fait Accompli”.Media reports also stated that emissaries were sent by the Maavai- CVK duo to non -TNA parties seeking their support for Emmanuel Arnold.

Emmanuel Arnold

When the Jaffna Mayor election was held on December 30th there were two competitors in the fray.The TNA’s Arnold was challenged by Visvalingam Manivannan of the Tamil National Peoples Front(TNPF). Though Manivannan was elected MMC from the TNPF contesting under the Cycle symbol of the Ahila Ilangai Tamil Congress (AITC) in 2018, he has fallen foul of the TNPF hierarchy after the 2020 Parliamentary poll. Expelled by the party, Manivannan has been forced to seek legal recourse to retain his position. A group of TNPF councillors in the Jaffna MC are Manivannan loyalists.The TNPF leadership comprising Parliamentarians Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam and Selvarajah Gajendran advised Party MMC’s to refrain from voting at the election in a bid to scuttle Manivannan’s bid for the Mayoralty stakes. It may be recalled that Manivannan was the official TNPF candidate at the 2018 Jaffna Mayor election.

The Jaffna Mayor election was presided over and conducted by Northern Province Local Government Commissioner M.Patrick Diranjan.All 45 MMC’s were present. At the outset it was decided unanimously that it would be open voting and not secret ballot. When voting began 15 of the 16 TNA councillors voted for Arnold. The solitary exception was Mahalingam Arutkumaran who abstained. Three MMC’s of the UNP and One from the SLFP also voted for Arnold. The lone TULF councllor also voted in favour of Arnold who obtained 20 votes in all.

Visvalingam Manivannan

Arnold however lost by one vote to Visvalingam Manivannan.Although the TNPF leadership had ordered its MMC’s to refrain from voting an overwhelming number defied the diktat and cast their votes for Manivannan. Ten TNPF councillors voted for him while only three abstained. All ten councillors from the EPDP also supported Manivannan. In addition one of the two SLFP councillors also voted for him.(the other voted for Arnold). Thus Manivannan had 21 votes to Arnold’s 20. With three TNPF and One TNA councllor abstaining, Manivannan had got 21 of the 41 votes cast and won. Visvalingam Manivannan was declared the winner. He promptly donned the crimson cloak, occupied the Mayor’s chair and thanked all who voted for him.

Visvalingam Manivannan

When the TNA’s defeat became known the excreta collided with the oscillator! TNA leader and veteran Trincomalee MP R.Sampanthan told the media that he had not been informed of Emmanuel Arnold being picked as the Mayoral candidate by the TNA. As such he could not be held responsible for the party defeat stated Sampanthan. Former Northern provincial minister and ITAK acting Secretary-general Dr. Sathiyalingam and Jaffna District ITAK parliamentarian MA Sumanthiran wrote directly to the ITAK president Senathirajah blaming him for the debacle.

Sumanthiran’s missive was reported widely in the Tamil media. The lawyer-MP had chronicled in detail all interaction that transpired between him and Senathirajah in this matter and charged “Maavai” of unilaterally nominating Arnold. Sumanthiran flung the gauntlet down by castigating the ITAK leader for his acts of omission and commission and declared that Senathirajah should take all responsibility for the defeat.

“Maavai” Senathirajah responded in turn by taking on Sumanthiran frontally. The ITAK chief rejected the charges by Sumanthiran and reiterated that Arnold was not his choice but that of all the TNA Jaffna municipal councillors. He also said that TNA constituents TELO and PLOTE had also approved Arnold as candidate. He also hinted that Sumanthiran was defying party discipline by criticizing his leadership publicly. When journalists asked Senathirajah on Dec 31st whether he would reply in detail to Sumanthiran, the ITAK president said he would do so after January 1st 2021 as he did not want to engage in unpleasant tasks on the first day of the New Year.

Clashing on Social Media

Meanwhile supporters of Senathirajah and Sumanthiran began clashing on social media. Several Tamil Newspapers, Websites,radio and TV stations also began adopting different positions on the issue. It appears therefore that the Jaffna Mayor election issue may very well be the precursor to a more intense political conflict between what may be described as the “camps” of Senathirajah and Sumanthiran. Unlike the clash between the Senathirajah-Saravanapavan duo and the Sumanthiran-Shritharan duo before,during and after the 2020 Parliamentary election campaign, this “spat” has serious ramifications with long term consequences for the parties concerned.

MA Sumanthiran

The past months after the August 2020 election has seen a “cold war”between Senathirajah and Sumanthiran where the former has been resporting to several controversial measures to undermine Sumanthiran and sideline Sampanthan. Hence there are many who feel that an open confrontation may help to resolve this “trial of strength”. The danger in this is the potential fragmentation of the TNA in general and the ITAK in particular. The factors and reasons causing the current intra-party crisis and its possible outcome may be analysed in greater detail in a future article.

What is most interesting about the 2020 Jaffna Mayor election is the sense of Déjà vu it evokes with the 2018 Jaffna Mayor election albeit with a sharp twist. The roles of the protagonist and antagonist are reversed in this political drama.The 2018 winner Emmanuel Arnold is the loser in 2020 while Visvalingam Manivannan who lost in 2018 has won in 2020. Besides there are changes in the roles played by other characters in this exercise also. I have written extensively about the 2018 Jaffna Mayor election in my column for the “Daily Mirror” of March 31st 2018. I shall conclude therefore with an abbreviated version of that article to provide readers a glimpse into what happened then.

Seven Political Parties.

When elections to local authorities in Sri Lanka were held on February 10th 2018 , the municipal elections in Jaffna assumed great political significance . Winning the Jaffna municipal poll and electing its candidate as Mayor became a prestigious political party battle. Seven political parties or groupings were in the race for the Jaffna municipal stakes comprising 45 seats(27 wards and 18 PR.) The contenders were the Tamil National Alliance(TNA) contesting under the Ilankai Thamil Arasuk Katchi(ITAK) symbol of house.The TNA comprises the ITAK, PLOTE and TELO; the Tamil National Peoples Front(TNPF) contesting under the Ahila Ilangai Tamil Congress(AITC) symbol of cycle; the Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation Front(EPRLF) contesting under the Tamil United Liberation Front(TULF) symbol of Sun along with the TULF;the Eelam Peoples Democratic Party(EPDP);the United National Party(UNP);the Sri Lanka Freedom Party(SLFP) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna(JVP).

There were 56, 245 registered electors of whom 40,916 voted at the polls. With 586 votes being rejected, 40,330 votes were counted as valid. The ITAK polled the highest 14,424(35.76%)and was entitled to 16 seats. The AITC coming next polled 12,020(29.08%) and obtained 13 seats. The EPDP came third polling 8,671(21.05%)and got 10 seats. The UNP garnering 2,423(6.01%)had 3 seats.The SLFP with 1,479(3.67%) got 2 seats. The TULF got one seat polling 1,071(2.66%). The JVP having only 242 (0.6%) votes did not get any seats.

With the fragmentation of seats among the different political parties, the end result was that of a hung council in Jaffna. This situation however was not in Jaffna alone but also prevalent in a very large number of local authorities all over the Island. This was mainly due to the new voting system which was reportedly a mixture of the first past the post winner mode and the proportionate representation method. As a result in many instances the situation was one where the party that came first found itself outnumbered by the other parties and being unable to form a viable administration in spite of gaining more votes and winning more directly contested wards. The “overhanging” factor was the cause in most cases.

The TNA consisting of the ITAK,PLOTE and TELO suffered greatly as a result of this overhanging syndrome. The TNA had contested in 55 local authorities in the North and East.Of these 48 were Tamil majority local bodies. The TNA Came first in 40 of these local authorites. However the TNA found itself unable to form a viable administration in over 30 of these bodies including the prestigious Jaffna municipality.

“Hung” Municipal Council

The Jaffna municipal council was the jewel in the crown for the TNA. Candidates were selected on the sharing formula agreed upon. The ITAK picked Emmanuel Arnold as its Mayoral candidate. The TELO selected Thurairasa Eesan as its nominee for deputy – mayor. The election campaign got underway and polls were held on Feb 10th. The results as stated earlier brought about a “hung” municipal council. The TNA had come first with 16 out of 45 seats but was unable to get Arnold elected as Mayor with a majority.It was against this backdrop therefore that the election for the Jaffna Mayoralty was held.

D-day was on March 26th 2018. Forty – four of the forty-five Jaffna municipal councillors gathered at the municipal council premises. The councillor elected on the TULF ticket had been convicted for an offence under the penal code and was absent. The Local Govt commissioner M. Patrick Diranjan presided at the election. Visvalingam Manivannan from AITC, Mudiappu Remedius from EPDP and Emmanuel Arnold of the ITAK were the contestants in the ring.

An ebulliently confident Manivannan asked for secret voting while Arnold wanted open voting. The decision about mode of voting was put to the vote.The 16 TNA and 3 UNP councillors wanted open voting while the 13 AITC,10 EPDP and 2 SLFP councillors wanted secret voting. So secret voting was adopted.

“Thiruvulacheettu” Method

When the first round of voting was conducted Arnold came first with 18 votes while Manivannan and Remedius tied with 13 votes each. While Manivannan had been unable to attract votes from outside his party, Remedius had got three outside votes presumably two from SLFP and one from UNP. Thereafter the names of Remedius and Manivannan were written on pieces of paper and one slip was picked. This is called the “Thiruvulacheettu” method. Remedius was lucky and Manivannan exited from the contest.

Now it was going to be a straight fight between Arnold and Remedius. The EPDP candidate then asked for a recess of 20 minutes which was granted by commissioner Patrick Niranjan. Mudiappu Remedius was then seen conversing animatedly with Manivannan and thereafter was seen to be engaged in a prolonged telephone conversation.

According to informed political sources Remedius had apparently asked Manivannan for support from the Tamil Congress which was refused. Apparently the Tamil Congress claiming to be ‘Tamil nationalist puritans” was not prepared to support a group like the EPDP which had collaborated with the Rajapaksa regime.It was also felt that instructions given by SLFP national list MP Angajan’s father Ramanathan to the two SLFP councillors to vote for the EPDP at the 1st round of voting had been countermanded by the party hierarchy. The chances were that both the SLFP and UNP would vote for the TNA against the EPDP. With defeat being imminent if a vote took place Remedius was facing a difficult dilemma and consulted the EPDP leadership.

Dropped a Bombshell.

When it was time again to resume voting the lawyer Mudiappu Remedius dropped a bombshell. He stated that he was withdrawing from the Mayoral race and went up to Arnold and shook his hands congratulating him. At this juncture the Tamil Congress’s Visvalingam Manivannan also a lawyer requested that he be allowed to contest against Arnold because Remedius had withdrawn. Patrick Diranjan however said that the election rules did not permit it. Manivannan therefore recorded his protest at the decision.

Under these circumstances Emmanuel Arnold was formally declared as the Jaffna Mayor in 2018. The announcement was received enthusiastically with TNA,UNP and even EPDP members applauding loudly. TNA Parliamentarians Senathirajah and Sumanthiran along with some provincial councillors were present and congratulated a jubilant Arnold together then.

DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at dbsjeyaraj@yahoo.com

This is an Updated Version of an Article written for the DBS Jeyaraj Column in the “Daily Mirror” of January 2, 2021. It can be accessed here: