With the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK), the principal constituent of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), deciding to support Sajith Premadasa of the ruling United National Party (UNP) in the November 16 Presidential election, the electoral scale is tilting towards him and away from his principal rival, Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
This is not to say that Sajith’s victory is assured, as many see him as a re-packed version of the discredited incumbent government.
But the TNA’s support is a shot in his arm, given the fact that in the absence of substantial support among the majority Sinhalese, he is relying heavily on the minority Tamils and Muslims.
Muslims have been explicitly with Sajith right from the start, but the Tamils have not been enthusiastic about him despite their intense dislike for Gotabaya. In his anxiety to keep the Sinhalese majority with him, Sajith had not given the nod to the Tamils’ demand for substantial territorial autonomy.
With Sajith silent on the demand, and Gotabaya resolutely opposed to it, the Tamils had been on the verge of an unofficial boycott of the election. And a Tamil boycott would have been disastrous for Sajith and a boon to Gotabaya.
But the TNA’s decision has changed the scenario noticeably. The Tamils are expected to come out of their shell and vote for Sajith while Gotabaya is likely to sharpen his majoritarian and nationalist stand and further communalize his campaign at the grassroots level portraying Sajith as a tool of Tamil separatists and Muslim Jehadists. Therefore, the TNA’s decision could be both a boon as well as a bane for Sajith. While gaining Tamil support he might lose Sinhalese support.
However, according to the Tamil media, the TNA will not actively campaign for Sajith. This is because it is officially committed to the radical 13-point charter of demands drafted by the students of Jaffna University. Some of the key demands listed in the charter, like the right to self-determination, are anathema to the Sinhalese political parties and by that token, anathema to the UNP too.
All that the TNA can tell the Tamil people now is that Sajith is the more pro-Tamil of the two candidates in the fray and that the Tamils could continue to support the UNP. This could be done by highlighting the pro-Tamil clauses in Sajith’s manifesto and the absence of these in Gotabaya’s manifesto.
Another inhibiting factor is the stand of the TNA’s principal rival in the Tamil-majority Northern and Eastern Provinces, which is the Tamil Peoples’ Council (TPC). The TPC is doggedly sticking to the 13-point charter and asking people to vote anyone of their choice but while keeping the 13-points in their mind. The TPC sees both Sajith and Gotabaya unsuitable and has decided to stay away from electioneering.
The TPC’s radical stance is aimed at winning the Northern Provincial Council elections in 2020. The TNA, which was in power in the NPC till the council’s dissolution, cannot afford to lose that election because it is a regional party. Giving the exigencies of the coming provincial council elections, the TNA will be constrained to keep a low profile in the current election.
Mercifully for the TNA, Sajith’s manifesto, unlike Gotabaya’s, has many clauses in favor of the Tamils. The manifesto promised that the constitution making process, which was abandoned in late 2018, will be revived and a new constitution drafted by the existing parliament will be finalized quickly and submitted to the people in a referendum.
The Tamils have been hankering for a new constitution which will give their “Homeland”, the Northern and Eastern provinces, greater autonomy. Though Sajith has ruled out federalism, he has promised “maximum devolution within a unitary framework” but without giving any details. He has also promised a Second Chamber in parliament to enable the provinces to share power at the Center.
Besides stating that Sri Lanka is a “pluralistic society”, Sajith said that as President he will take decisions “with the concurrence of the Prime Minister”. This will be welcomed by the Tamils because they feel that in a system where the parliament has more power, the minorities can influence government more than they can under an Executive Presidential system where the head of State and government is not answerable to parliament as much.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa, on the other hand, has not promised devolution of power. Neither has he promised a Second Chamber in parliament for the provinces. He wants to enhance the powers of the Executive President by getting the 19 th. Constitutional amendment passed by the incumbent government in 2015, repealed.
Nevertheless, Gotabaya also promised a new constitution. “A Parliamentary Select Committee will be appointed to engage with the people, political leaders, and civil society groups and prepare a new constitution for Sri Lanka. In these deliberations, we will look into the Executive Presidency, the mixed electoral system, the Provincial Councils and strengthening of the independence of the judiciary.”
“The cornerstones of the new constitution will be a unitary state with the foremost place given to Buddhism, while giving other religions freedom.”
But the biggest dampener for the Tamils is the clubbing together of armed forces personnel accused of war crimes and Tamil militants. For the Tamils, LTTE cadres are victims and the armed forces personnel are aggressors.
This is what the manifesto says: “Armed forces personnel charged with various offences during the war and those who are already undergoing punishment as well as the remaining LTTE cadres charged with terrorism -related offences will be rehabilitated and integrated with the rest of society as free persons. All those under detention for long periods, charged with terrorism-related offences, will either be indicted or discharged within three months.”
The assurances relating to the LTTE cadres could please a section of the Tamils, but the majority will disregard Gotabaya’s promises.
On language policy, Gotabaya said that his government will bridge the gap between the Sinhalese and the Tamils by “making it mandatory for Sinhalese medium students to learn Tamil, and Tamil medium students to learn Sinhalese, with the fullest support of the State.”
On how he proposes to bridge the communal gulf created by the war, Gotabaya’s manifesto said: “What we need in the present scenario is to develop the Northern and the Eastern provinces where all citizens can live without fear and suspicion. Kilinochchi and Mannar districts, which were above the poverty line prior to 2014, have now fallen below the poverty line joining Jaffna and Mullaitivu districts. It is clearly evident that the political promises given in 2015 have not materialized and no action has been taken to uplift the economic status of the people in these areas.”
“Economic development zones started by our government that can accommodate large and medium scale industries to provide jobs for the youth of the North and the East will be given adequate capital investments. Loans will be provided to youth for vocational training and vocational education that can be repaid when they find employment in their trade. All private lands currently being held by the government will be released to their respective owners. Priority will be given to its inhabitants in recruiting employees for government jobs in these areas.”
The difference between the two manifestos is that while Sajith’s manifesto at least partially addresses some of the political aspirations of the Tamils and gives some concrete proposals, Gotabaya’’s manifesto sidesteps the Tamils’ political aspirations and promises economic uplift which, Gotabaya maintains is the best guarantor of communal harmony and peace.
But the Tamils have traditionally given priority to political demands like devolution of power and accountability for war crimes and put economic grievance on the back-burner.