Muslims and the Eastern Provincial Council Elections in Sri Lanka: Kingmakers or Pawns?

Photo via Colombo Telegraph

As the campaigning for the Eastern Provincial Council (EPC) election concludes, there are only a few absolute certainties as to the outcome – most notably that there will be no outright winner.  Given the electoral system, the results of recent elections, the demography in the East and the general voting pattern along communal lines, it is more or less clear that neither the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) nor a possible Tamil National Alliance (TNA) –United National Party (UNP) combine will have a simple majority. In such a context it will be the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) which is contesting independently that will hold the balance of power. The strategic value of the Muslim vote is all too evident, not solely due to the SLMC having been the key focus of pre-nomination lobbying, but also that other political parties and alliances are attempting to shore up their Muslim votes.

Once more, the Eastern Muslim polity, like in parliamentary and presidential polls, finds itself in the strategic position of being a ‘king maker’. While this role provides the community with significant leverage, it has not always delivered in terms of key objectives of the Muslim politicians or the demands of the polity. In an attempt to understand the dynamics of the Eastern Muslim polity in the upcoming EPC election and where the polity finds itself the current juncture, this article will examine larger patterns in Eastern Muslim politics, including the strength of Muslim minor parties, the struggle for representation and the post-war concerns of the polity. Even while the EPC election offers an opportunity for Eastern Muslim politicians to demonstrate their support and power, for the polity it is viewed as an opportunity to ensure representation of constituent communities and of issues.

Gains and Losses of Muslim Minor Parties

Although the SLMC will ultimately decide which alliance will take control of the EPC, it is unlikely that within the Eastern Muslim polity there will be an outright winner at the EPC poll, unlike in Tamil areas, where the TNA will most likely take a majority of the vote share or to a lesser extent in Sinhala areas where the UPFA is likely to dominate with some variations between districts. As in the previous post-war polls, the fate of individual political parties will significantly vary between the different areas, making clear that Eastern Muslim politics continues to be highly competitive and dynamic, at least in terms of electoral politics. In this context it would be useful to review the results of the Local Government Authorities (LGA) elections that were held in three phases in 2011. Two of three dominant Muslim minor parties, the SLMC and the National Congress (NC), contested independently in some authorities while competing in others as a part of the UPFA with whom they are allied with at the national level.

The SLMC was able to demonstrate its continuing dominance with significant victories particularly in LGAs in Ampara. For instance, in Kalmunai Urban Council it increased the number of seats it won from 10 in 2006 to 11 in 2011 with a miniscule improvement in proportion of votes it garnered from 48.69% to 48.88% of the total vote. The party however experienced some serious setbacks most notably in Batticaloa where it slumped to third place behind the UPFA and independent groups in two of the three LGAs that went to the poll. Even in Ampara, considered the base of the party, there were notable defeats including in the two main LGAs in Akkaraipattu where the NC, once more, proved their popularity and power, and in Samanthurai PS which it had won in alliance with the UNP in 2006. In Trincomalee, where the SLMC competed as part of the UPFA coalition, its candidates faced stiff competition from other coalition members so was unable to make a clean sweep. Hence, even while the party can claim to be the dominant Muslim minor party, it faces serious challenges but there were no efforts post LGA-polls to take action on reviewing and consolidating the party structure. The main lesson that was drawn by the party was that it was in a strong position to contest independently but that the results would be mixed. It can be expected that the SLMC will be able to shore up its base in Ampara, while Trincomalee will prove more competitive. In Batticaloa the party is facing a serious crisis with a senior leader, Basheer Segu Dawood backing a UPFA Muslim candidate. Notably, the SLMC has put forward a female candidate to contest in the district, Salma Hamza.

Like in the previous EPC and the LG elections, this poll will provide an opportunity for break-away parties from the SLMC, the NC and All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) to prove their continuing relevance and viability. The NC in both polls was able to show their primacy in their bastion of Akkaraipattu but also successfully fielded candidates through the UPFA slate as far afield as Kathankudy and Muttur in the last EPC and Sinhala candidates in Ampara LGA elections. Minister N.L.M. Athaulla has been able to maintain his electoral power, and the victory of his son as the mayor of the recently upgraded Akkaraipattu Municipality suggests that steps are being taken to ensure the stability of the dynasty, if not the party.

The ACMC has found the post-war context more difficult as none of its Eastern leaders were able to secure parliamentary seats in the 2010 general election, and are now attempting to win seats as EPC members. The ACMC competed through the UPFA and was able to show that they retain support in their stronghold by helping win Korallaipattu West PS in particular. While the ACMC is confident of securing representation through Batticaloa, with the former parliamentarian, Ameer Ali contesting as a candidate, it could also re-claim representation in Trincomalee. Muslim politics in Batticaloa is divisive with politicians having individual strongholds and independent groups such as People’s Movement for Good Governance in Kathankudy being able to retain significant vote share and are testing their political strength at a provincial level.

Minor gains, National losses

For the UPFA Alliance as a whole, and the SLFP in particular, the post-war context offered the opportunity to expand its base, particularly in offering access to state resources. The defeat of the LTTE consolidated the position of the UPFA and it seemed that the entire political landscape had changed and the opposition was unable to assert itself. Among some sections of the Eastern Muslim polity the victory over the LTTE was seen as a defeat of Tamil nationalism and of minority politics at large. Other factors including the splintering of Eastern Muslim politics, the emergence of minor political parties from other ethnic polities and the Machiavellian stratagems of the current administration have resulted in Muslim minor parties losing their king maker position.

Following the death of the SLMC founder leader A.H.M. Ashraf, the party has had a number of factions break away from the party and it has been vulnerable to efforts by governments to encourage the cross over of party leaders, including in 2010 when the SLMC joined the UPFA Government partly due to averting another split. During the EPC election the party is facing another internal crisis that could result in another cross over. It is apparent that the heyday of the Muslim minor parties is over, not just in terms of their strategic importance at the national level but they are also hard pressed to prove their electoral strength at the district level.

That the politicians from the National Unity Alliance (NUA), headed by Ferial Ashraf decided to join the SLFP in the lead up to the parliamentary elections was symbolic of the insecurity of the Muslim minor parties, but this strategy did not deliver for the party’s leaders. While the SLFP claimed that there was a need for a new type of politics that went beyond communalism and ethnic political parties, it was all too clear that the party was not beyond using ethnic cleavages to shore up its own position. For instance, the SLFP did not publicly condemn a poster campaign calling on Sinhalese to vote only for Sinhalese candidates in Ampara prior to the general election 2010.

The UPFA leadership also used the strategy of encouraging a maximum number of Muslim candidates to contest in Ampara and Trincomalee under the UPFA list so as to accumulate more votes for the alliance while consolidating preference votes among the few Sinhala candidates. This strategy was seen at the 2010 general election in Trincomalee and Ampara with more Muslim candidates than Sinhalese on the UPFA slate so that the vote split between the Muslims. In Ampara the leader of now defunct NUA, Ferial Ashraf lost her seat while in Trincomalee this strategy along with the limited popularity of Muslim candidates allowed for the UPFA to elect two Sinhalese elected as MPs.

The post-war context has, however proved disappointing for the SLFP. The opposition to the Government was made all too clear in the Presidential Elections of 2010 when Sarath Fonseka won in all Muslim majority electorates in the East and was also a game changer in terms of off-setting the UPFA’s hegemony. Even while the UPFA and the SLFP secured significant victories, including winning control of individual LGAs in Muslim majority areas it is all too apparent that the SLFP has not been able to secure a position of primacy within the Muslim polity.  In its electoral strategy the SLFP continues to rely on its UPFA coalition partners in Muslim areas and has not made serious in-roads in building up the base of the SLFP. One of the two SLFP organizers for Batticaloa district and former Chairman of Eravur Pradeshiya Sabha, Ali Zahir Moulana is running for the EPC so his victory may mark a symbolic post-war gain for the party.

As the LGA results demonstrate the primary battle for popularity in most areas continues to be between Muslim minor parties. However, it needs to be noted that in some areas there is a different dynamic. For instance in Kinniya, the electoral battle is between the national political parties and the UNP is expected to reverse its loss at the LGA elections. The Muslim base of the once powerful UNP, like the SLFP, has suffered significantly as a result of its alliance with Muslim minor parties as Muslim candidates from the national parties were often not placed on nomination lists or supported by the party hierarchy in favour of coalition cohabitation. The UNP has yet to re-organise its party structure in the East.

Securing Representation

For the Muslim polity securing representation has been a critical political driving force. This desire to ensure maximum ethnic representation in elected authorities and appointed positions is by no means unique to the Muslim polity. In fact, Muslims developed mass communal political parties well after the other ethnic counterpart. The strong desire for Muslim representation is also a result of a historical experience of political marginalisation that contributed to the emergence of a popular Muslim minor party, the SLMC. That neither Trincomalee nor Ampara has made a Muslim District Secretary over the past few decades reinforces the perception of ethnic marginalization.

The political and human security crisis the community faced as a result of the war also contributed to the party establishing its dominance over the Eastern Muslim polity in under a decade. Although the effectiveness of a Muslim political party for the polity, as opposed to the politicians, is increasingly questioned, the SLMC, as the primary Muslim party continues to utilize the insecurity of the community to mobilize support for it. Interestingly, the attack on the Dambulla Mosque in April 2012 which heightened the feeling of insecurity in the community, has provided a significant boost for the party.

This political desire for representation has meant that there is significant support for a unified Muslim list at the provincial level as a means of securing power and in order to address needs. At the EPC elections in 2008 and 2012 there were efforts to pursue such a strategy but the suspicions among Muslim politicians, especially among the Muslim minor parties, proved too overwhelming. The intra-Muslim political violence has been one of the most serious forms of election violence during the 2012 EPC elections. Given the number of Muslim candidates both in Muslim minor parties and in other political parties , coupled with competing political compulsions on the part of voters such as the interest in securing representation from the locality and rivalries with politicians from other localities has meant that the results from parliamentary and LGA elections have not been straightforward.

In terms of ensuring a maximum number of Muslim councilors from all political parties, this current line-up of parties and alliances is perhaps ideal. If the SLMC had contested within the UPFA and secured its demands for a significant share of the positions in the UPFA’s nomination lists, it would have played straight into the Government’s strategy of flooding the UPFA nomination lists in Ampara and Trincomalee districts with Muslim candidates so as to better ensure that more Sinhala candidates get elected.

Given their demographic strength many Eastern Muslims expect the position of a chief minister to be awarded to a Muslim. In 2008 the UPFA assured the position to the most popular candidate but the results showed a higher vote for the main Tamil candidate, P. Chandrakanthan of the TMVP while more Muslim provincial councilors than Tamils were elected to the EPC on the UPFA list. Ultimately, the UPFA was able to exploit the divisions within the Muslim minor parties to appoint Chandrakanthan. Even while the UPFA has stated that they will re-appoint sitting chief ministers across all three provincial councils going to the polls, given that the SLMC will be in a position to decide who will have the majority in the EPC, it is assumed that securing the position of chief minister will be the main bargaining chip, although the interests of the party leaders could also come into play. As noted above it cannot be assumed that Muslim voters will automatically vote for other competing groups on this count along, even while the SLMC may well make this a part of its electoral platform.

In the run up to nominations, the SLMC party was split as to whether to contest alone, with the UPFA or even the TNA. Even while its decision to contest independently is a popular choice within the party there are suspicions within the polity as to whether it is purely tactical for accruing more votes and that the outcome has been decided. The party contested with the UNP in the general election of 2010 but in October 2010 justified joining the Government on the grounds of providing stability for the Government in order to address critical issues. There are suspicions that the party leadership will automatically join a UPFA coalition in the EPC once the results are announced, not because the party wants to avoid losing whatever limited space it has for advocacy with the Government but due to the vulnerability of the party leadership. There are, however some sections of the party and the polity who feel that an alliance with the TNA in the EPC is important in order to ensure that minority rights are safeguarded.

Hidden costs of representation in government

While the main Muslim minor parties will justify their alliance with the UPFA as imperative to securing access to state resources and protection, the Eastern Muslim community has found it challenging to have their core needs addressed. Having secured cabinet portfolios these politicians have been able to access state resources and influenced state policy to address specific issues particularly relating to development but it has become evident that there are also costs, including the loss of oppositional voices to give voice to community grievances.

When the SLMC joined the Government there was significant support among their support base for this decision but there was also some apprehension that the community would lose their ability to voice their problems. Furthermore, it has become apparent that securing cabinet portfolios is more about accessing systems of patronage as the ability to influence policy and address fundamental structural problems relating to democracy, peace and development is seriously limited. Hence, even though the EPC will see a high number of Muslim representatives there are serious concerns as to whether they will take up the concerns of their constituencies or merely raise issues that are convenient. The weakness of the provincial council system is an added factor that constrains rather than prevents members from advocating on issues impacting their constituencies. Having all the main Eastern Muslim parties on one side has also meant that they have very limited leverage.

The Muslim politicians find themselves as pawns, unable to impact or influence key policies and vulnerable to the Government’s machinations, especially given the ability of the Government to buy over, encourage and coerce leading members of political parties. The rivalry between Eastern Muslim political leaders has proved so problematic that they are unable to unite even on a specific issue, however this cannot account for the challenges faced by the community in raising a diverse range of issues, particularly those deemed controversial.

For instance, the Mosque in Karumalaiuttu, Trincomalee, dating back from the early nineteenth century, has been occupied by the security forces and the largely fishing community of the village (over 100 families) has not been allowed to resettle and reclaim their land. The exact reason for why the navy and now army are preventing civilian return and use of the mosque has not been made clear. Despite Muslim politicians being aware of the issue, there has been little public advocacy by them over the last few years and there has been no progress on the issue. Similarly in Ashraf Nagar in Addalaichennai the military has established an army camp and attempted to take over the land of 69 families who are largely chenna farmers. While a few affected families have attempted to seek legal redress Muslim politicians from all parties have not provided any support and a few have even attempted to encourage the community to accept alternative solutions. The unwillingness of elected leaders to raise such issues, coupled with the apprehension of district-level civil society leaders to do so, has placed great pressure on community leaders to front efforts at highlighting their own problems.

The change in the political and security context with the end of the war did have a significant impact on the position of the Eastern Muslim polity. Hence, there are questions regarding the relevance and potency of key issues that dominated during the ceasefire period, including security, land and a political solution, including a Muslim Self Governing Region. Even while the Government might claim that the major post-war concern in the region is development, it is apparent that these issues have not disappeared, if at all they have altered in nature and scale. For example on the issue of the political solution, there is disagreement within the community as to the framework and even whether a fundamental reform of the state is required, but there is also a very clear demand from sections of the community for pushing forward on a settlement between the Government and the TNA, with the Muslim community being recognised as an equal partner to any such settlement.

The lack of debate and dialogue within the Eastern Muslim community on post-war concerns and needs facilitated by politicians and/or civil society is all too apparent. This in turn limits the space for advocacy. Hence a key challenge for the Muslim members of the EPC will be whether they will take up the concerns of the communities who elected them and advocate on their behalf. There are clear risks in not doing so, not just in terms of Muslim politics but also for the region and country at large in terms of the transition from war to peace.

  • World View

    Unfortunate that Muslim parties are contesting along communal lines and openly resorting to racism and ethnic chauvinism to win votes from their constituencies.

    • Lanka Muslim, UK

      If Muslims and Tamils are Muslims are having their own parties and espousing their rights is slated as communalism the introductions of the Sinhala Only Act., Enforcing the ‘Sri’ on motor vehicles, making Buddhism the State religion, etc. all done using the power of the Sinhala majority, too are communalist acts. So the Sinhala politicians are the ones who sow the seed of communalism. Are they not?

  • Anu

    Let us hope that there will be free and fair elections and that it will not be disturbed by powerful persons who fear defeat.Otherwise the whole article is purely academic

    • ummpa

      “Exactly said” Anu!

  • walter

    World view

    Yes, Muslim and Tamils are using communal slogans, unfortunately they have no other choice in a Country that has moved along religious and language lines since Independence.
    Immediately after independence we had several left socialist, a right wing and two Tamil parties. Now we have proliferated the Political system and are saddled with nearly sixty Political parties.
    In many Countries in the World, Political parties differ on National issues, and that’s how they get public support for their sustenance. In Sri Lanka, Dick, Tom, and Harry have started Political parties, for narrow personal gain, mainly because the citizens of this Country have no idea nor interest in examining the purpose of these parties.
    Of course without criteria, we have created a vacuum, with no standards or yardstick in place, before registering these parties.
    During the last Presidential and Parliamentary elections, several non-entities who would have never won any election, were promoted and propped up by candidates who were already in the fray. The story is that these “ghost” candidates also had certain privileges of keeping representatives in the counting booths etc. so that the serious candidates could send their nominees to scout around for whatever they had in mind.
    Sri Lanka should immediately put in place serious non negotiable conditions to anyone wanting to form a Political party.
    No Country can or should have Political parties to cure everybody’s cough, and cold. We have been lax, and now saddled with an incurable disease of creating more and more parties.
    I believe that in our system, if Political parties get a percentage of the votes, they become automatically entitled for some benefits.
    So coming back to this question of using Language or Religion in Politics must be totally banned.
    Almost all Western Democracies have shed this narrow standpoint.
    The exceptions are India with their B.J.P. and other Islamic Countries. Some of them are striving hard to come out of this configuration.

  • Dev

    The LTTE committed probably their worst mistake in clearing the Muslims out of Jaffna.
    It is up to the TNA now to correct this historical blunder and it has been doing that though it is not enough !

    Hopefully the SLMC would throw its lot behind the TNA to gain minority rights that seem to be fast eroding away due to the hegemony of the Sinhalese.
    Having been with the government has proven disastrous to the Muslim people, maybe it is time to join hands with the other Tamil speaking group (us) to fight democratically for our human rights.

  • Muslim

    To be together as a community is not communalism. To help ones own when there is no one to help is not communalism. To discriminate against and malign other communities is communlism. To prevent others from their worship is communalism.
    So there is nothing wrong in the SLMC or TNA standing up on behalf of their own communities as long as they do not discriminate, malign or attack others. Rauf Hakeen did inadvertantly malign the Buddhist Clergy and tendered an unqualified apology.

    • MV

      It is one thing to stand up for the community and another to exploit communal sentiments to further one’s own gains. The muslim-sinhala alliance cannot be described anything short of opportunism. How else could one describe their hypocritical backing of communal Sinhala regimes, harping on one nation and then complaining about religious freedom and minority rights? However, some would like to blame it on the LTTE (which is the easiest thing to do since they are no more) for all the things wrong and corrupt in the miracle of Asia.

      • Muslim

        To be united in diversity is not being opportunistic. Being one nation and following the laws of the land is not being opportunistic. It is what our religon teaches us.
        Complaining about discrimination in specific instances is our human right. Being an agent of democratic change is our duty to the nation.