Sri Lanka: Presidential Election And Tamil Politics – OpEd


Presidential elections more often than not create a crisis within the Tamil community. In the recent past, these elections have contributed to internal debate whether they should boycott the poll or support one or the other candidate. It is often the radical fringe that advocates boycotts. Advocates of boycott justify their position on the argument that it is an affair of Sri Lanka, not the Tamil people. It was on the same claim that the LTTE boycotted the presidential election of 2005, a decision that was proved fatal for its existence. 

As a general rule, the main Tamil political parties have refrained from contesting the presidential polls. The decision not to contest stems from the fact that a Tamil cannot win a presidential election and the belief that fielding a Tamil candidate could undermine the chances of their preferred candidate from the South. The 2019 presidential election also produced similar dilemmas. 

2019 Dilemmas 

As usual, there was a call to boycott the 2019 election, which was ignored by a vast majority of the Tamil voters. Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam of the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) gave leadership to those who preferred a boycott. This was not the first time Ponnambalam had proposed boycotts of presidential elections. 

Also, as usual, the main Tamil political party, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), did not even contemplate the idea of fielding its candidate. Hence, for the Tamil people, the option was to vote for Sajith Premadasa, or Gatabaya Rajapaksa nominated respectively by the New Democratic Front (or the UNP) and the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). Voting for Sivajilingam, a Tamil candidate was not an option for many Tamil voters. Nationally, he polled only 0.09 percent votes. In Jaffna District, he obtained only 6,845 votes (1.84%).   

Voting for Rajapaksa or Premadasa was not easy either. Gotabaya, of course, has a problematic history with the Tamils. Gotabaya led the was against the LTTE during the last phase of the military confrontation, which was proved to be a humanitarian catastrophe for the Tamils. The immediate post-war period was also extremely difficult for the Tamils. For example, many in Jaffna in this period felt that they were living in an “open prison.”  

This, however, did not mean that they preferred Premadasa. Premadasa had three specific issues in attracting Tamil votes. One, he had a Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist outlook, which was not too attractive for the Tamils. Tamils prefer a neutral outlook. Ranil Wickremesinghe and Chandrika Kumaratunga had such attitudes and positions. Two, until very recently, Premadasa remained almost wholly ignorant of Tamil issues and did not attempt to connect with Tamil voters. His activities were centered on the South, especially in Sinhala Buddhist areas. He hardly undertook political or development activities in Tamil areas. Three, essentially, he was the UNP candidate. The UNP, in the last five years, failed miserably to deliver on the promises made to the Tamil votes in 2015. The Last-minute actions, such as the opening of the Jaffna Airport, were seen as political gimmicks by many Tamil.

Therefore, Premadasa was not their preferred candidate. Still, they overwhelmingly voted for him because he was seen as the lesser of two evils. Many Tamils and the TNA were open about the reality that they had to vote for the “perceived” lesser evil. Hence, the vote for Premadasa. He polled more than 80 percent in some Tamil majority districts. For instance, he polled 83.86 percent and 82.12 percent votes in Jaffna and Vanni districts, respectively. 

The point is that the Tamil vote against Rajapaksa was not racist, as suggested by some of the SLPP supporters. It was not a vote of reprisal for finishing off the LTTE. It was a vote of fear. The fear that a Gotabaya headed government will somehow work against the Tamil people and their interests. It is essential to understand that it was “fear” that determined the nature of Tamil votes if the new president is keen to repair his relations with the Tamil people.

Vigneswaran’s Move: A Surprise 

Faced with the usual dilemma of what to do with the newly announced presidential election, five Tamil parties signed an agreement to adopt a common approach vis-a-vis the presidential election. Reportedly, Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK), Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO), People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), the Tamil Makkal Koottani (TMK), and the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) signed the document. 

What surprised me in this exercise was the involvement of TMK and its leader, C. Vigneswaran. Vigneswaran only recently defected from the TNA and formed his outfit, the Tamil Makkal Koottani. To leave the TNA and to form his party, Vigneswaran should have had considerable policy differences with the TNA. Only fundamental policy differences could justify a new political party. Even if he did not have fundamental policy differences, he should have provided an alternative framework in order to sustain his new political party. However, he was inclined to working with the TNA even before facing an election and proving his capacity.

From an electoral point of view, this was a serious blunder made by the TMK. I believe that to be viable and useful, the TMK should highlight its differences with the TNA and make a case for why it could be an alternative to the TNA. The fact that the “Tamil alliance” did not last long could not be blamed on Vigneswaran. However, he should have known that the TNA will eventually endorse the UNP candidate.   

TNA Blunders 

Nevertheless, the Tamil parties came up with a 13-point proposal, which was rejected by both major candidates. Regardless of the rejections, the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (or the real TNA), along with PLOTE and TELO, decided to endorse the candidacy of Premadasa and campaigned for him. This is where I believe that the Tamil parties errored considerably. 

First, supporting a candidate even after he or she rejected the openly presented demands was extremely problematic from a negotiation point of view. The move exposed the TNA as well as the Tamil vulnerabilities. Premadasa most likely realized that the Tamils have no option but to vote for him. A smart political outfit would have extracted some concessions, even symbolic concessions, before openly supporting Premadasa. The TNA did not worry because some of the leading figures of the TNA were firmly under UNP influence. 

When the TNA negotiate next time, the UNP could confidently say no, because it knows that the TNA would eventually surrender. Therefore, the TNA’s decision to support Premadasa had established a bad precedent from a Tamil perspective. 

Second, the TNA did not have to compromise so much to support a losing candidate. It was clear for some of us that Premadasa did not have a chance in the 2019 election. I believe Premadasa himself made a colossal mistake by fighting for the UNP nomination. This was a fight Wickremesinghe was happy to lose.   

Nevertheless, I do not believe that the TNA or its leaders undertook an analysis of possible scenarios before deciding to support Premadasa. They should have done that. They did not do that. Therefore, they not only unconditionally supported Premadasa but also campaigned for him. By doing so, they may have invited backlash against Tamil people. One has to wait and see. Part of the blame should go to the TNA if a systematic campaign is undertaken to disintegrate Tamil votes. 

Stay Neutral or Contest  

In my view, the Tamil parties should not have presented the 13-point proposal before engaging the candidates with an open mind. The proposals placed the candidates in a defensive posture. Accepting the proposals would have become a liability. Therefore, the party and the Tamil groups should have expected the rejection. When it became clear that Premadasa could not win the polls, the Tamils should have decided to remain neutral. The TNA should have allowed the Tamil people to exercise their voting right in the way they deemed fit. This was the original position of many Tamil parties.  

The Tamil parties could learn a lesson or two from the JVP in this regard. Next time, the main Tamil party should field its candidate and then negotiate, if necessary. If electoral pacts are not feasible, they should contest, because it is their election as well.     

Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan

Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan is a Professor of Conflict Resolution at Salisbury University, Maryland. Formerly, he was a Professor of Political Science at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka.

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