Event ReportsPublished on Apr 07, 2008
By entering the scene though a little late in the day, SLMC president Rauff Hakeem on the one hand, and the People's Front of Liberation Tigers (PFLT), the latter the political outfit floated by the LTTE as far back as 1989, have made the 10 May polls to the Provincial Council high profile and interesting at the same time.
An internal agenda for the East?

By entering the scene though a little late in the day, SLMC president Rauff Hakeem on the one hand, and the People's Front of Liberation Tigers (PFLT), the latter the political outfit floated by the LTTE as far back as 1989, have made the  10 May polls to the Provincial Council high profile and interesting at the same time. Coming as it does in the footsteps of the relatively peaceful conduct of the local government polls in eastern Batticaloa district in recent weeks, the Provincial Council election has the potential to re-write the contemporary ethnic history of the trouble-torn island-nation as none else has done in recent times.

That the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) would contest the polls in the company of the UNP Opposition was almost a foregone conclusion. So was the party decision to contest on the UNP's Elephant symbol. Yet, it is anybody's guess if the last-minute decision of the SLMC to field the top three had anything to do with the party's Batticaloa strongman M L A M Hizbullah crossing over to the ruling SLFP-UPFA combine to contest the provincial polls.

By quitting Parliament and heading the UNP-SLMC list, Rauff Hakeem (Trincomalee), party chairman Basheer Segu Dawood (Batticaloa) and general secretary Hasan Ali (Ampara) have committed themselves to a long haul in regional politics as no one else may have done anywhere in the country ever since Provincial Councils came to be formed 20 years back. By contesting the Provincial Council elections, even if only in the Tamil-majority Batticaloa district, the LTTE has sent out a message that it is ready to take the democratic challenge, head-on.

The Eastern Province is a microcosm of Sri Lanka, particularly in matters of ethnic distribution, only that the Sinhalas are in a minority here compared to the national figure, which stands close to 75 peer cent. Like in the North, the Tamils traditionally used to be the majority community in the East as well, with or without the Tamil-speaking Muslims, who otherwise remained a close second. However, in the absence of certified Census figures since 1981, it is anybody's guess if such assumptions hold true any more – or, if the Muslims, for instance, may have out-numbered the Tamils, already, with the Sinhalas trailing way behind.

To the extent much of the anti-Muslim actions in the East over the past decades had been linked to the Karuna leadership, be it before or after the 2003 split in the LTTE, the successor Pillayan group, politically known as the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal (TMVP), has a lot to answer at election time. Having identified some of the ills of the present Government to the "forced Sinhala settlements" in eastern Muslim lands, attributed in particular 'Sinhala-nationalist' JHU's Environment Minister Champika Ranawaka, the SLMC, it is said, did not expect the Muslim community to vote the UPFA, whatever the reason. Or, so went an argument. 

It the poll promises to be interesting in the rest of the East, it also promises to be challenging in Batticaloa. The LTTE decision to enter the fray directly after discouraging the pro-LTTE Tamil Nationalist Alliance (TNA) from contesting, is true to character. How the ground situation in Batticaloa would evolve in the run-up to the polls is anybody's guess, considering that the PFLT and the TMVP are daggers drawn at each other – and literally so.

This would also raise questions about the preference of the pro-LTTE Tamil voters in Trincomalee and Ampara districts, where the PFLT is not in fray – and if they would be encouraged to register their preferences. A boycott call in their case could leave a bad taste in the mouth, a la Presidential Polls 2005, and a vote for the UNP-SLMC combine could cause eyebrows to be raised in some pro-UNP sections of the Sinhala voters.

For his part, JHU Minister Champika Ranawaka has said that the 'strong SLMC presence' in the electoral fray would intimidate the Tamil and Sinhala voters. If by saying so, he hoped that the Tamils would vote with one or the other of the Sinhala parties, even if it was the UNP but minus the SLMC, he may be asking for too much. Suffice is to point out that in the normal circumstances, even the "minority" Sinhala vote in the East would have been divided on known political lines, with a  possible streak in favour of the JVP, thus far untested as such in the East.

In a way, it was yet another master-stroke that President Rajapakse inflicted on his political detractors when he caused the exit of Hizbullah and company from the SLMC, if only to blunt criticism that his Government would encourage poll violence by the Pillayan group. For his leadership and Government, peaceful conduct of the polls in the Eastern Province would have been a moral and political victory by itself. By erasing some of the intended blemish by pushing down the TMVP by a further rung or two in the political ladder, at least during the elections, President Rajapakse may have also sowed the hopes of an electoral victory in his camp – whatever the final result.

It is not as if the TMVP remains an untouchable to all but the SLFP-UPFA in the Eastern Province. Even while blaming the party for invisible violence and silent intimidation of the Batticaloa voters, the UNP Opposition seems to have recognised the political relevance of the new political party at the ground level. Even if it was meant only to convey apprehensions about the anticipated violence during the Provincial Council polls, UNP Parliament member Dr Jayalath Jayewardene may have conferred greater legitimacy on the TMVP by meeting its political leader, Pradeep Master.

Sure enough, the UNP could be expected to project any defeat for the SLFP-UPFA in the Eastern Council polls as a defeat for the leadership of President Rajapakse at the national-level, and attribute it to the state of the economy, and law and order. It is also in this context that the emerging internal dynamics in the JVP needs to be studied and understood.

At least one senior JVP leader, Lal Kantha, has charged President Rajapaksa with wanting to split the party. The Eastern polls could provide the cause and field for the same. On earlier occasions when the chips were all but down, the JVP leadership seemed to have ducked the issue by boycotting two budget votes in Parliament, by boycotting them last year. It was possible on both occasions that a show-down might have exposed the chinks in the JVP armour.

Whatever all this be, the complexity of the emerging electoral situation, and the follow-up political conditions would engage the Eastern Province so very thoroughly in the coming weeks and months, if not years and decades. Should the Colombo Government and President Rajapaksa remain committed to their offer of large-scale influx of funds and investments for the reconstruction of the East, as a follow-up to the Provincial Council polls, it would be anybody's guess if the region would have any time for politics without development. The latter has a trajectory and chemistry of its own, which could well have the potential to re-write some parts of the contemporary ethnic history of the island-nation.

Sans violence of the kind identified with the ethnic war on different sides, an average of 36 candidates per seat in the Eastern Province poll (1342 nominees for the total 37 seats) reflects images of a vibrant democracy. Considering that a total of 33 nomination-sets, for instance, have been accepted in Ampara district (11 political parties and 22 independent groups), there could be little scope for complaints of inadequate representation for any section of the society, as long as the Government can ensure that no charges of intimidation or violence is unleashed in the aftermath of the poll.

It is possible that the entry of the PFLT could make the poll scenario a tense affair in Batticaloa than even during the local government polls, but then the party could also act as a 'balancing force', ensuring that charges of intimidation of Tamil voters do not go unchecked and unreported – unlike was to have been the case with the local government polls in the district only weeks ago. A lot would also depend on the number of seats that the PFLT wins and how would it uses those numbers to dictate the political course of the future, starting with the East, but impacting on the nation and the 'national problem' as a whole. Around that premise could the voting pattern in the East revolve – and evolve, too.

The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), the Indian policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi.

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