Ethnic polarisation and the Eastern Provincial Council election


With the closing of nominations for Provincial Council elections to be held in September for the North Central, Sabaragamuwa and Eastern Provinces, it is already apparent that the most keenly fought and closely observed of the three contests, will be in the Eastern Province.

Many contentious issues come together in this part of the country. It is characterised by a demographic profile that is multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural. As a result the East could be seen to some extent as a barometer of the tensions that remain unresolved at the broader national level, and of the political behavior that tends to perpetuate them.
This is the first Provincial Council election in the East since the war’s end. One of its notable features is the participation of the Tamil National Alliance (Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi), which did not take part in the last EPC election in 2008. Another development is that the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, which is part of the government, has decided to contest on an independent list. In the 2008 EPC election the SLMC contested under the UNP banner.

In the matter of nominations made by the TNA and the SLMC in this election, it may be noticed that both parties have submitted almost fully mono-ethnic lists for the province’s three districts of Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Amparai (Digamadulla). The TNA has included one Muslim candidate each on its lists for Trinco and Amparai. Its Batticaloa list is fully Tamil. The SLMC has fielded two Sinhalese each on its lists in those two districts, and has a fully Muslim list for Batticaloa. For the sake of context it is useful to give the ethnic distribution of population in the EP. The most recent census data for the three districts of the EP is for 2007. (See table for the breakdown)

The mandatory number of names that each contesting party has to submit under the proportional representation system is 14 for Batticaloa, where 11 councilors will be elected; 13 for Trincomalee, where 10 will be elected; and 17 for Amparai, where 14 will be elected.

The submission of almost fully mono-ethnic nomination lists would seem to point to an increasing tendency towards polarisation of political campaigns along ethnic lines. While the tendency towards communal politics is not new, it may be relevant to ask at this point in time, whether the continuation of this attitude is at all helpful in advancing national reconciliation. Over this very issue, the Socialist Alliance, representing the Left parties within the government, has decided to contest independently on its own manifesto.

“With the announcement of candidates for the post of Chief Minister on the basis of ethnic lines, a process of polarisation of voters on ethnic lines has begun to be a dominant factor,” it said in a statement. The Alliance, consisting of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, Communist Party and Democratic Left Front, argued that this can seriously endanger the post-conflict reconciliation process. “The Socialist Alliance strongly believes that it should not allow Left, progressive and secular forces to be drawn into the quagmire of divisive and communal politics,” the statement said. The Socialist Alliance says it was not accommodated on the UPFA lists in either the EPC election or the Local Government elections held earlier. It expressed displeasure that as a result, it was denied the opportunity “to intervene to bring about a positive qualitative change in these developments.”

The SLMC’s decision to contest independently took a somewhat different route. As always with the announcement of an election, there is a scramble to get onto the nomination lists of the main parties. During this run-up period when negotiations with the UPFA leadership were going on, the SLMC mentioned a variety of demands relating to the welfare of the Muslim community. As reported variously in the media, they included the Chief Minister’s post, a separate administrative unit for Muslims, implementation of the 13th amendment, steps to prevent land acquisition, protection of religious sites, recruitment for jobs in public service etc., etc…. In the end it appeared that it was inability to get the desired number of slots on the UPFA nomination lists that led to their decision to contest independently.

Both the ruling UPFA coalition and the UNP have submitted mixed nomination lists for the EPC. In Amparai the UPFA has eight Sinhalese names, seven Muslim names and two Tamil names. The UNP in that district has nine Sinhalese, seven Muslims and one Tamil.

In Trincomalee the UPFA has six Muslims, four Sinhalese and three Tamils, while the UNP has seven Muslims, four Sinhalese and two Tamils.

In Batticaloa the UPFA has nine Tamils and five Muslims. The UNP too has nine Tamils and five Muslims.
(This breakdown is based on ethnicity suggested by the names on the Elections Dept. website.)

The main national parties’ tradition of drawing on the support of different communities in an election may be seen as a positive tendency, from the point of view of national unity. This pattern is possibly a result of necessity rather than virtue. In other areas their leadership is found wanting.

Is it not the UPFA leadership that should be held responsible for allowing criminal elements to enter fray at election time, and friends and relatives to elbow their way in to nomination lists?

This is a trend that has helped perpetuate a culture of political patronage of the worst kind. When the election is over these politicians will say, “it is the voters who decided.” But the choices offered to voters are determined at the outset by the political leaders. It is they who set the parameters for the kind of governance structure that emerges at the end of the day.
Across the board it may be noticed that names of women candidates in the nomination lists are extremely few and far between. Why is 50% of the population so ignored?

If national reconciliation is a priority, all political leaders need to take responsibility for creating an environment conducive to that end. Perhaps the unhealthy tendency towards ghettoization of politics along ethnic lines, visible in the EPC election campaign, should be seen as a symptom of a problem rather than its cause.

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