Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Oct 25, 2019

Most minorities are Tamil-speaking, accounting for a substantial 30% of the population.

Sri Lanka: Will ‘minority votes’ still decide the ‘majority’ ruler?

Presidential elections are due in Sri Lanka on 16 November, and once again the question has arisen if the Tamil-speaking minorities will decide the nation’s choice from the two main contenders, who are Sinhala-Buddhists by birth and who also represent what is known as the ‘majority’ Sinhala-Buddhist polity in the country.

Sinhala-speaking people dominate the nation’s population and hence the electorate, accounting for 70% of both. Especially after the anti-Christian attacks in suburban Weliweriya in mid-2013, and the more recent Easter Sunday blasts of 21 April this year, Sinhala-Christians, (especially the Catholics) are seen as a separate constituency for whom benefits of electoral promises means safety and security of the individual and the community. There is also a small percentage of Sinhala-speaking Muslims, with ancestral moorings in Southeast Asia and at times West Asia.

Most minorities are Tamil-speaking, accounting for a substantial 30% of the population. But, they have been divided in terms of religion, caste and even region. The dominating denomination is that of Sri Lankan Tamils (SLT), often identified with the militant-terror group LTTE but otherwise representing a moderate community, demanding political equality with the Sinhala majority after their earlier aspirations for ‘political equity’ did not come through.

Sinhala-speaking people dominate the nation’s population and hence the electorate, accounting for 70% of both.

Then, there are the Tamil-speaking Muslims and the upcountry Tamils of ‘Recent Indian Origin’ (IOT), all four of them, including the Sinhalas, constituting separate ethnicities under the nation’s three Constitutions, since Independence in 1948. The SLT and the Muslims shared similar political goals and aspirations until the LTTE wrecked it through killings and forced evictions in 1990. To them both, the IOTs are ‘untouchables’, so are the SLT stake-holders who are not of northern Jaffna origins. Even within the Muslims, there is the dominating Kandy leadership, with their political base in capital Colombo but electoral strongholds in the East.

All this has meant that a divided Tamil-speaking polity has allowed itself to be manipulated by one or the other of the two Sinhala electoral majors, in the UNP and the SLFP, the latter having transmuted into the SLPP under the Rajapaksas, who won the LTTE war and also lost the presidential polls of 2015, to a rag-tag coalition opposed to them. Similarly, the coalition collapsed as expected, post-poll, leading to expected political stability being identified now only with the Rajapaksas, with their proven 40% vote-share in the ‘Sinhala South’.

No ‘wrong-doing’

From among the Rajapaksas, two-term President Mahinda’s brother Gotabaya, is the nominee now. As war-time Defence Secretary, Gota inspires as much dislike among the Tamils and other minorities, too, as among a substantial share of Sinhala-Buddhists, both of the self-styled nationalist variety and the rest. There is no denying their fighting spirit, despite being pushed against the wall.

As may be recalled that the incumbent coalition Government of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had passed special, personalised constitutional amendments, to keep the Rajapaksas off the current presidential polls even at the end of the previous one, five years back. Thus, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, restored the original ban on a two-term President contesting a third time, introduced by Mahinda R. ahead of the last polls.

The 19th Amendment also increased the minimum age for the President from 30 years to 35, possibly to ensure that Mahinda R’s parliamentarian-son, Namal Rajapaska could not make the grade this time round. The amendment also barred ‘dual citizenship’ holders, of whom Gota is now included, from contesting elections in the country, starting with the presidency. Already, a few MPs have been disqualified under the new law. In the case of Gota, however, there were added issues of the date and time he relinquished his US citizenship, but Sri Lankan courts have since cleared him of any wrong-doing in the matter.

The 19th Amendment also increased the minimum age for the President from 30 years to 35, possibly to ensure that Mahinda R’s parliamentarian-son, Namal Rajapaska could not make the grade this time round.

For getting the required minimum of 50% votes, with a gap of 10% to bridge beyond their ‘committed’ 40%, is not going to be easy for the Rajapaksas. Conversely, for Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s UNP nominee, Sajith Premadasa, to win, he will need to retain the 30% Sinhala voters that backed the party in the nation-wide local government polls of February 2018, along with 20% more. It is here the minority votes matter the most as do their aspirations and leadership promises to the respective constituency.

First step to secessionism

Despite sections of the much-divided polity of the SLT, Muslim and IOT communities/ethnicities indicating their continued reservations about a ‘Rajapaksa return’, one questions if they could still influence their constituencies to vote for Sajith Premadasa, wholesale. There are also sections who back the Gota constituency but the overwhelming minority sentiments, seems to be against a Rajapaksa ticket.

It is not without reasons. The minority votes alone caused the election of Sirisena and cost Mahinda Rajapaksa the presidency in 2015. Yet, UNP’s Wickremesinghe, who was the official under-writer of the Sirisena ticket, has failed to redeem the pre-poll pledges to the respective communities this time again. There are reasons and justifications, but they may not wash in a presidential poll, where the Rajapaksas are the only major issue, for and against, in the conducted respective campaigns.

The minority votes alone caused the election of Sirisena and cost Mahinda Rajapaksa the presidency in 2015. Yet, UNP’s Wickremesinghe, who was the official under-writer of the Sirisena ticket, has failed to redeem the pre-poll pledges to the respective communities this time again.

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leadership of the broad-based SLT community has not been able to get the promised political solution to the ethnic issue that caused war and violence in the past, nor has it been able to deliver on the ‘war crimes probe’, despite international empathy and UNHRC sympathy and support. The internal squabbles within the TNA over the five-year term of the first elected Provincial Council of the party in the Tamil-dominated North (2013-18), and their current patch-up has not gone down still with sections of the Tamil electorate, who see it as political opportunism.

Worse still, there is no guarantee that former TNA Chief Minister of the North, ex-Supreme Court Justice, C.V. Wigneswaran, would not backtrack later, despite signing a common, five-party memorandum for Tamil support. Already, the Rajapaksas have rejected the memo, as it reiterates the war-time Tamil demand for recognising them as a ‘separate, sovereign nationality,’ even otherwise unacceptable to the Sri Lankan State apparatus, the armed forces that fought the LTTE for 30 years, and powerful sections of the Sinhala-Buddhist clergy, who continue to see such demands as a first step towards secessionism.

The Muslims have their dues with the UNP, whose candidate Premadasa came against the presidential aspirations of PM Wickremesinghe, owing to their open outside support to his party. There are sections who continue to be concerned about what they call the insensitivity of some UNP leaders and ministers, especially after the Easter blast, preceded by Sinhala-attacks on the community, in eastern Batticaloa and Upcountry Kandy in 2018. They may not be ready to equate it with the anti-Muslim riots under Rajapaksa-II (2010-15), when the Sinhala-Buddhist ‘Bodu Bala Sena’ (BBS) resorted to targeted attacks of the kind which contributed to LTTE terrorism and war.

Not rubbed on, but..

Despite the Muslim Ministers’ nonchalance in the Wickremesinghe Government in the aftermath of the Easter blasts, not every section of the divided Islamic polity is convinced about the sincerity of their own political leadership or that of the ‘moderate’ UNP, until now under Wickremesinghe, and whose mantle may pass on to Sajith Premadasa, or others. In his time as President and even earlier, Sajith’s slain father Ranasinghe Premadasa, was seen as a Sinhala-Buddhist hardliner.

Though none of it has rubbed on Premadasa Jr., he has also not endeared himself to the minorities, by keeping away from controversial religious and linguistic issues until he decided to run for the presidency. To be sure, there is no way the Sajith campaign can be expected to endorse the five-party Tamil memorandum, regardless of PM Wickremesinghe’s personal views. Nor can Sajith seek to upset the UNP’s own ‘rural Sinhala vote-bank’, which is still dominated by the urban elite, which still has not accepted him.

In the post-war presidential polls of 2010, Mahinda R swept the polls with a high 57% vote-share, the second highest after his one-time SLFP party boss, Chandrika Kumaratunga’s 62% in her first outing in 1994.

In the past, minority votes have decided the presidential polls as evident with Mahinda’s candidacy. In his first outing in 2005, the LTTE made a difference by enforcing a ‘poll boycott.’ According to UNP leaders and independent observers, this alone helped Mahinda to become President. In the more recent 2015 presidential polls, incumbent Mahinda did not even wait to concede defeat when early results showed that he had lost Tamil and Muslim districts of North and East by huge margins, even though he was leading in most other electoral districts, other than urban Colombo.

In the post-war presidential polls of 2010, Mahinda R swept the polls with a high 57% vote-share, the second highest after his one-time SLFP party boss, Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga’s 62% in her first outing in 1994. This time round, it was clear that Mahinda won on the near-exclusive strength of the Sinhala majority, as most SLT votes had not been cast and out of those cast, a majority went against him. Even though the Muslims were believed to have voted for his ticket, there was no way a substantial negative vote by the Muslims and IOT electorate could have denied Mahinda Rajapaksa the required 50% minimum.

A lot will depend on the Wickremesinghe leadership convincing his own UNP candidate, the once-estranged Sajith Premadasa and the five-party Tamil alliance, where the Wigneswaran camp and the reunited EPRLF might affect, this time from within. There may be no support for Gota among the SLT and Muslim electorates, but there is also no great enthusiasm for the Premadasa ticket at the voter-levels, though there is still time left to repair the damage, between now and the polling day. “Who will blink first?” if at all, is the question, even though there is a third serious candidate in centre-left JVP’s Anura Kumara Dissanayake, for whom there are no takers among the minorities.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.

Author

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

Read More +