From the sidelines The Northern Provincial Council election expected to be held in September is likely to be one of the most closely watched Sri Lankan elections in recent history, both locally and internationally. It will allow Tamils to elect representatives in the province where they form a majority, for the first time. The move [...]


Northern election, reconciliation and the need to extend the middle ground


From the sidelines

The Northern Provincial Council election expected to be held in September is likely to be one of the most closely watched Sri Lankan elections in recent history, both locally and internationally. It will allow Tamils to elect representatives in the province where they form a majority, for the first time.

The move to hold this election has been hailed by moderates from all communities as a positive step in the reconciliation process. The Government’s resolve to hold the NPC election has been made known through Minister Basil Rajapaksa, the brother of the President and national organiser for the SLFP which leads the ruling coalition.

Strong opposition to the 13th Amendment (and the election) has been expressed by certain coalition partners of the Government. Minister Wimal Weerawansa has vowed to withdraw the support of his National Freedom Front if police and land powers are not removed from the provincial councils, and the Jathika Hela Urumaya has reportedly announced it will present a Bill in parliament to repeal the 13th Amendment entirely. On the other hand the Muslim parties including the SLMC, and the Socialist Alliance, consisting of the LSSP, CP and DLF, and the EPDP are supportive of the move, so the SLFP is not altogether orphaned in this exercise.

It is significant too that the TNA, the biggest party representing Tamils in parliament, is taking the election seriously, as its preparations indicate. The divisions reported within the TNA, while they need to be resolved, reveal the relative influence of moderates like TNA leader R. Sampanthan and Parliamentarian M. A. Sumanthiran, both from the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK). Their declared reluctance to register the TNA as a political party along with former militants on board could be seen in the South in a positive light. Is this not in a sense an indirect rejection of the hardline approach in Tamil politics?

At the very least, it could be seen to reflect a new pragmatism. This is possibly the closest the TNA has come to openly disassociating itself from the militancy associated with the LTTE. It could be argued that one of the biggest contributions the TNA could make, for its part, towards the reconciliation process would be to openly declare its rejection of that organisation and its abhorrent ways. Such a gesture could open up an entirely new chapter in the relationship between the communities.

The main Opposition UNP’s deputy leader Sajith Premadasa, too, has spoken in favour of the Northern election. According to reports he has asserted that the message of the armed forces’ victory on May 18, 2009 to the Northerners was to give up arms, and exchange the bullet for the ballot. He warned of the danger of denying them their democratic rights as it could amount to inviting a renewed terrorist struggle.

Against this backdrop of reactions to the 13th Amendment and the proposed Northern election, there is a need to extend the middle ground held by the moderates on all sides, and strengthen their hand.

Holding the election in a free and fair manner could be a start in this admittedly difficult process. If the Government at this point bows to the hawks within its ranks on the contentious issue of police and land powers, it could undermine the whole exercise, as it could result in the TNA pulling out of the contest. The election should not necessarily preclude further discussion in reaching a lasting political solution. Couldn’t the Government work on the basis of an understanding with the moderate Tamil leadership that the allocation of powers between the centre, the provinces and the ‘concurrent list’ are matters that are still open to negotiation, through a process of consultation?

The UPFA leadership has shown signs that it is ready to stay the course regardless of some opposition within its ranks. It has done well to state its intention to field a list of worthy candidates committed to development and reconciliation, including academics, professionals and civil society representatives.

It is more or less a foregone conclusion that the TNA under its present leadership will win the NPC election. It would be in the Government’s own interests to make this a ‘showcase event’ since all eyes will be focused on its conduct. In this it needs to perhaps take a leaf out of the book of its detractors, who have time and again used high profile events to campaign against the Sri Lankan state on human rights issues. (Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has already said Britain will use the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) to do exactly that.)

On the negative side, there is reason to suspect that the UPFA leadership plans to hold the NPC election for all the wrong reasons. The election acknowledges acceptance of the 13th Amendment favoured by India as the basis for a political solution to the national question. It has been revealed in the media that Indian diplomacy was instrumental in keeping Sri Lanka off the agenda of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action group (CMAG), and securing the backing of member states for Sri Lanka to host CHOGM without censure. It is said the quid pro quo for this support was the pledge to hold the NPC election and go with the 13th Amendment. If these are the underpinnings that make the NPC election a reality, the genuineness of the Government’s commitment would seem to be called into question. What happens to the commitment once the glitter of CHOGM wears off?

With the NPC election only months ahead, the acquisition by the state of 6381 acres of land in Jaffna for the use of the military has alienated the Northern community further. The TNA says thousands of landowning IDPs will be unable to return to their lands. The party is reported to have talked to US ambassador Michelle Sison regarding the land issue.

It could be argued that Tamil political leaders would be less likely to turn to Western embassies to pour out their grievances, if they are better empowered to serve their communities at home. Correspondingly the Tamil Diaspora’s influence would recede, with elected Tamil representatives in Sri Lanka being able to deliver to their constituencies. For this they need to be suitably empowered. Members of the Diaspora don’t vote in Sri Lanka’s elections, Sri Lanka’s Tamil citizens do.

The Diaspora’s ‘influence’ is nothing more than a result of the leverage it enjoys with governments in Western countries where its constituents represent large blocs of votes. Taking the external dimension into account, a realistic assessment of the present trajectory of events would show that there are many reasons why it is in the government’s own interests — as well as in the interests of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and territorial integrity — to ensure a free and fair NPC election, and follow through on other widely accepted recommendations on reconciliation.

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