The general elections to be held in a few weeks has so far been all about the two major parties, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP) and in this election in particular, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) which is expected to become a ‘third force’ at the poll.
In the media, attention has been focussed on the antics in the SLFP and its alliance, the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA). That is because of the split in the party between the factions headed by President Maithripala Sirisena and his predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa made headlines.
Meanwhile, the major party representing the Tamil community, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has hardly earned a mention. Now though, it has earned media attention after its manifesto was released, calling for federalism and the merger of the northern and eastern provinces.
The TNA states that any solution to redress ethnic grievances in the country must be “in a unit of a merged Northern and Eastern Provinces based on a Federal structure”. It also seeks control over land, law and order (meaning, in effect, police powers) among other subjects and direct foreign investment.
These are substantial demands but even the TNA has downplayed them. The TNA’s Suresh Premachandran says the manifesto did not say anything that the TNA had not said earlier: “we have only reiterated that Tamils are seeking devolution of power within a united but federal Sri Lanka.”
Just as much as the UPFA in the South has to tell voters that it should be voted in to save the country from the threat of terrorism, the TNA too has to play to the gallery of the Northern voter to ensure that it is returned to Parliament with the maximum representation.
However, this manifesto is significant from another perspective: it is the first articulated by the TNA after reasonable time and space had passed since the end of the civil war in 2009. The last general election in 2010, in the immediate aftermath of the war, did not allow for such reflection.
The political scenario in the North and East has also changed considerably since then. Provincial elections have been held. The North now has its first provincial council and Chief Minister. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) no longer exists. The TNA is free to state its stance.
The TNA is also facing its first election in twenty years where a SLFP led coalition is out of power. Although Chandrika Kumaratunga was seen as ‘minority friendly’ President, Mahinda Rajapaksa consciously played the Sinhala nationalist card to ensure that he won the bulk of the southern vote.
For all these reasons, and a President who is not a hardliner, the TNA have the opportunity to state its case before the nation to try and achieve a lasting political solution in the country. That it has done so in the form of a ‘federal’ set up will be disappointing even to moderate Sinhala groups.
The TNA could be believing in ‘asking for more’ so they could settle for less. They may also have an eye on the upcoming sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Council in September, dealing with which will be a priority for the government that will be elected in August.
Nevertheless, as there is more scrutiny of the manifesto in the days to come, the TNA will be asked some hard questions, despite its professed allegiance to a ‘united’ Sri Lanka. And, the parties in the South will also attempt to use the TNA manifesto to try and gain an advantage for themselves.
Already, the JVP has slammed the TNA manifesto saying that while the grievances of Tamil people should be redressed with a solution, ‘federalism is not that solution’. It also opposes the merger of the northern and eastern provinces under the 13th Amendment, against which it went to courts and won.
The UPFA has also been quick to condemn the mandate TNA is seeking. Its General Secretary Susil Premajayantha is being politically mischievous when its links the TNA’s manifesto with the UNP’s pledge for a national government, demanding whether the UNP is seeking the TNA as a partner.
Identifying itself with minorities has been a costly exercise for the UNP in the past, depriving the party of the Sinhala vote in the south but at this election, with the presence of the likes of Champika Ranawaka and the endorsement of Maduluwave Sobhitha Thera, that is not likely to be an issue.
At the presidential election, the votes from the North and East were decisive in ensuring victory for President Maithripala Sirisena. These votes will not be as critical at the general election. However, the TNA’s position on the ethnic issue will serve as a benchmark for the new government to grapple with.