By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Express
Colombo, September 3: Sri Lanka’s minority communities, Tamils, Muslims and Christians, play a critical role in the country’s Presidential election as the Lankan President is directly elected by the entire enfranchised population. The winning candidate has to get 50% plus one of the valid votes cast. Therefore every community is important for the candidates.
The minorities constitute nearly 30% of the population and therefore cannot be ignored by any candidate. In 2012, the distribution was as follows: Buddhist 70.2%, Hindu 12.6%, Muslim 9.7%, Roman Catholic 6.1%, other Christian 1.3%, other 0.05%.
In the January 2015 election, the all-powerful sitting President Mahinda Rajapaksa lost even though he had massive support among the Sinhalese Buddhist majority. He had made no effort to woo the disgruntled Tamils and he had alienated the Muslims by tolerating or even engineering anti-Muslim riots in Aluthgama in 2014.
Of the minorities, the Tamils and Muslims are the most important because they are block votes, while the Christians are not that important because they are linguistically divided into Tamil-speaking and Sinhalese-speaking Christians. The Tamil-speaking Christians go along with the Tamil-speaking Hindus and the Sinhalese-speaking Christians go along with Sinhalese-speaking Buddhists.
However, there could be a Christian block vote this time round because over 300 had died and 500 injured in the Jehadist bomb attacks on churches on April 21, Easter Sunday. The head of the Catholic church, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, has galvanized Christians to demand a proper investigation and adequate compensation. Many feel that the Christians are now becoming politicized under the leadership of Cardinal Ranjith.
The Christians basically want security and Gotabaya Rajapaksa a former Lt.Colonel in the army and Defense Secretary, has made national security his main plank apart from economic development. The chances of Sinhalese-speaking Christians going the Gotabaya Rajapaksa way is strong even if the Tamil-speakers do not.
The Tamils, by and large, appear to be determined not to vote for Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the candidate of the opposition Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). But at the same time, they are not sure if Sajith Premadasa, who has declared himself as the candidate of the United National Party (UNP), will be the best alternative.
D.Siddarthan, Tamil National Alliance MP said that the Tamils consider Gotabaya Rajapaksa (Gota for short) ultimately responsible for the human rights violations in the horrific last stages of Eelam War IV in 2009 as he was directing the war as Defense Secretary.
“ The Tamils of the North consider the annihilation of the LTTE as a humiliation of the entire Tamil people, and therefore, Gota does not deserve their vote,” Siddarthan said.
He further said that Gota’s promise to improve the economic condition of the war-affected Northern Tamils will not make an impact because Northern Tamils have a penchant for devolution of power and a political settlement based on that rather than economic development.
But Siddarthan saw a difference between the Northern Tamils and the Eastern Tamils. In the Eastern Province, the Tamils are in conflict with the Muslims, who they allege, are gabbing all the opportunities for advancement through unfair means.
“At least some Eastern Tamils view Gota in a different light. They feel that Gota will put a stop to the activities of the Muslims as he is known to be anti-Muslim especially after the April 21 bombings by Jehadists,” Siddarthan said.
The bombing of a Batticaloa church packed with Tamil Christians on April 21, Easter Sunday, has only widened the divide between the Eastern Tamils and the Muslims. The fact that Kattankudy in the Eastern province had been the nerve center of Jehadism in Sri Lanka and the home of terrorist Zahran, has only widened the communal divide.
“Therefore, it appears that at least a section of the Eastern Tamils will vote for Gota,” Siddarthan said.
However, the Tamil leader felt that a good number of Tamils will vote for any UNP candidate, whether it is Sajith Premadasa (Sajith) Karu Jayasuriya (Karu) or Ranil Wickremesinghe (Ranil).
“If there was no Tamil party in a contest, the Tamils had voted for the UNP rather than the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Eastern Tamils had been in the past, voted UNP in parliamentary elections,” Siddarthan pointed out.
The Tamils see the UNP as being less Sinhala chauvinist than the SLFP and more pro-minority.
Tamil National Alliance MP and spokesman M.A.Sumanthiran said that from the Tamils’ point of view, the best candidate will be Ranil because as Prime Minister, he has addressed the issue of having a new constitution and even produced a draft.
“Ranil accepted the concept of Orumittha Nadu/Ekeeyaa Rajya/ United and Indivisible Sri Lanka. This is not the same thing as a Unitary Sri Lanka which Gota and Sajith want. The new constitution, which was almost finalized under Ranil’s leadership, was based on devolution of power within a united and indivisible Sri Lanka in which the powers given to the provinces could not be taken away. But both Sajith and Gota have clearly stated that they are for a unitary constitution where the provinces’ powers are not guaranteed,” Sumanthiran pointed out.
As regards Muslims, conversations with a cross section of them indicate that they still have a negative view of Gota which stemmed from the Aluthgama riots of 2014. A close associate of Minister Rishad Bathiudeen of the All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) pointed out that Gota is marketing himself as a best guarantee for national security, especially after the Easter Sunday blasts carried out by nine Jehadists. But while Muslims are all for national security, they also fear that they may be specially subjected to suspicion, the Bathiuddeen associate, who declined to be identified, said.
“Furthermore, neither Gota nor his party leader Mahinda Rajapaksa has visited the Muslims of Kurunegala who lost properties in anti-Muslim riots after the April 21 bombings. Muslims consider the indifference of the Rajapaksas unpardonable. The anger is especially against Mahinda Rajapaksa because he is an MP from Kurunegala district,” Bathiudeen’s follower said.
Rishad’s acolytes also point out that people from the Rajapaksa camp like S.B.Dissanayake and Wimal Weerawansa had gone out of the way to tarnish Rishad’s image by unfairly branding him a fellow traveler of Islamic zealots.
Sajith is confident that the Muslims will support him, but he cannot take that for granted as he is not known to have done anything for the Muslims or spoken out for them when they were hounded, the Rishad camp follower said
He further said that Sajith’s public utterances do not inspire confidence that he will be a sensible leader. His declaration that he will not accept bullet proof cars and that he is prepared to die for the country, do not go down well with a people who want the President to live and rule for the benefit of the people and not die.
“Though the Muslims will not vote for Gota and will support the UNP, their preference is for Ranil who is genuinely non-communal. He has compensated the Muslims for the properties they lost in the May riots in Kurunegala district,” the Rishad follower pointed out.
The minorities are eagerly awaiting the UNP’s decision on its candidate. Out of the three options – Ranil, Sajith and Karu their first preference is Ranil. But if the UNP closes ranks and puts up Sajith, the Muslims will accept him willy nilly. If the party puts up Karu, as Minister Ravi Karunanayake predicts, they will support him, though there are doubts about his chances of winning given his lack of touch with the grassroots rural Sinhalese and his subdued personality.
There is also the fear that in the event of Sajith’s not getting the UNP’s nomination, the party might split. That will cast doubts about anybody from the UNP making it against Gota whose SLPP is solidly backing him. The ball is now in the UNP’s court.