Image courtesy The Sri Lanka Guardian
The TNA victory has shown that Sri Lanka remains a functioning democracy; that it functions when there is competition; and that with or without the 17th amendment and even under the tightest military supervision, the government can be electorally defeated.
Having won the war, the Government has lost the peace in the North (and earlier, parts of the East), while it continues to lead impressively in post-war politics in the more populous two- thirds of the island.
The TNA’s electoral tsunami has many dimensions and implications. The UNP’s meltdown is a far simpler matter. The TNA’s sweep denotes the resounding political and ideological defeat of the Government’s model of post war rule in the North. Paradoxically, the sweep was also possible because a war was fought to a finish against the Tigers, without which the democratic space would not have re-opened, elections could not have been held and the TNA candidates would have in all probability been assassinated.
When the post-revolutionary Sandinista government lost power in 1990, having won in 1984, it was said by analysts that the very fact that power could be transferred openly and peacefully to the Opposition for the first time in Nicaragua’s modern history, was itself a victory for the Nicaraguan Revolution. Similarly, the very holding of a Northern provincial council election in a peaceful and relatively free and fair manner, is a by-product of the war and the defeat of the Tigers by the Sri Lankan government, state and the armed forces.
It is true that the holding of the elections was due to external pressure and blandishments by India and Japan respectively. However, India itself could not hold an election in the North in 1988 and had to cobble together a joint slate. The first North-East provincial council was constituted through en election in only one province, the East. It was the decimation of the Tigers as a military force by the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration that made the restoration of a competitive electoral process possible.
Thus the political picture in the overwhelmingly Tamil North is almost exactly what it was before the war. The clock has been put back many decades to the dominance of the Federal party or ITAK. However the degree of political dominance of the TNA is far higher than it ever was for the pre-war ITAK because of (i) the convergence that the TNA represents (ii) the elimination of many political currents by the LTTE’s policy of slaughter (one can only imagine an election in which the undiminished EPRLF, PLOT and TELO contested) and (iii) the unenlightened post-war model of rule installed by the regime.
So what of the morning after? The government and the TNA have to recognise the political reality unflinchingly. What is that reality? It is that both the North and South are politically and ideologically uni-polar. Tamil nationalism is here to stay and dominates the mood of the North, while Sinhala nationalism or more correctly populist nationalism dominates the South and is as durable. The Government’s model of rule has lost some considerable legitimacy in the North and has to change. The flip side is that the TNA and the Tamils in general have to grasp that the Rajapaksa administration and more especially President Rajapaksa himself (the campaign in the South was carried by a re-energised Mahinda Rajapaksa) is the only game in town for the foreseeable future.
The TNA and the Government must find a modus-vivendi, a way to co-exist. The government must not place the TNA administration under siege and must instead try to help it evolve in a more constructive and moderate direction, softening it up rather than permitting radicalism and political militancy to influence it from within and without. The Government must recognise that the shift in the centre of gravity of Tamil politics from the Diaspora and Tamil Nadu to the TNA and the Northern Council is a positive thing. The government must also realise that the best deal available is that which can be cut with the TNA and that behind and beyond the TNA lie the weight of 80 million Tamils as well as the influence they carry in India and the West.
The TNA for its part must understand that its main interlocutor is in Colombo; that the Northern Council must not be seen as a beachhead for pan-Tamil nationalist politics, least of all of a secessionist project. The TNA must not regard itself or the Council as equal negotiating partners in a bilateral discussion between two countries, or one country and another in waiting. The realities of the government’s – and more especially the President’s –undiminished popularity in the vastly more populous two thirds of the island as well as the strength and presence of the armed forces – which, in a heightened perception of threat can always be expanded up to the 300,000 mark which Gen Fonseka had argued for and Mahinda Rajapaksa had turned down in the immediate aftermath of the war.
The Northern vote has politically and psychologically altered the post-war balance. It has re-empowered the Tamils. This is a therapeutic and almost inevitable re-balancing. The Government must recognise and respect the new equilibrium. However, the Tamil side must understand that none of this means that the massive historical reality of a decisive military defeat in a protracted war has been reversed. In terms of power, that victory remains and constitutes the dominant reality.
The pro-Prabhakaran, pro-Tiger political rhetoric that marked and marred the TNA’s electoral campaign imposes limits on the possible. It has re-awakened memories and provided a glimpse into the project of pan-Tamil nationalist politics and the Tamil nationalist mindset. No state can be unaffected by this revelation. The invocation of Prabhakaran’s ghost has a real-world political price tag. No leader whose popularity and legitimacy derives not only from his manifest appeal among the Sinhalese majority but his achievement in defeating the Tigers, is going to kiss and make up with the TNA on the morning after. A chill will have set in between Jaffna and Colombo; South and North.
At this stage of history, no political discussion can involve the transcendence of the 13th amendment. All effort has to be on the implementation of the amendment. The absence of trust probably means that this implementation will be graduated. Having proved its electoral strength the TNA must not try to fast track the macro-political process which will prove even more contentious after the political ‘holographic projection’ of Prabhakaran than it was before. There is much to be done in the form of consolidation and development at the local level, within the space available. If that space is under siege the effort must be to stretch it to its constitutional limit and not beyond. There are two modes that present themselves before the TNA in a politico-existential choice. One is the ‘capillary’ or ‘molecular’ mode of evolutionary change through gradualism and incrementalism. The other is that of nationalist take-off, fuelled by hyper-inflationary rhetoric.
The government has two choices as well: a Cold war and an institutional siege of the Northern PC or a lucidly Realist combination of constructive engagement and containment. The government must recognise that the newly elected Council has great legitimacy externally.
Both the government and the TNA have to build bridges to each other. Both have also to discern the red lines. If the government seeks to dismantle the 13th amendment, it will cross a red-line drawn by India and the West. While the TNA’s discourse is its own business (just as anyone’s dreams are their own), if it tries to translate it into political action and push for ‘the right of self determination’ (qualified as ‘internal’ as Anton Balasingham used to), federalism or the transfer of powers beyond the 13th amendment, it will cross a red-line drawn by the Sri Lankan state, the Sinhala people and the armed forces. The South resisted the PTOMS and the ISGA proposals when its collective back was to the wall. It will not countenance any attempt on the part of the TNA to conduct itself as if the Northern PC were the ISGA or the PTOMS.
The Sri Lankan state contained Tamil nationalism by defeating the Tigers and is in turn, now politically contained by the international order as well as the Tamil political resurgence. The international community and most especially India must be aware that both Sinhala and Tamil nationalism must be contained. A perceived tilt of the world system towards the Sri Lankan state has now been corrected, but the external players must not encourage a perception of a tilt to Tamil nationalism which has not succeed in kicking the secessionist temptation.
However strong the pan-Tamil cause is externally and whatever external pressures may be brought to bear, the vote for the UPFA and for Fonseka’s DP reveals enough of a support base for protracted military resistance, with or without Mahinda Rajapaksa, to any roll-back of the verdict of May 2009. This collective emotion which is no less tenacious than that of the Tamils and has an enormous demographic advantage on the ground is also a reality and must be recognised if Sri Lanka is not to become another Egypt or Syria someday (with an important difference—the Sri Lankan armed forces aren’t secular; they are the Buddhist Brotherhood).
The vote in the far less strategically significant but far more populous North Western and Central provinces present a clear and less complex picture. The popularity of the UPFA– read Mahinda Rajapaksa—hovers around 60% while that of the main democratic Opposition as led by Ranil Wickremesinghe averages out in the high 20% range, failing to cross 30%. The TNA and the international community must know that it is only Mahinda Rajapaksa who can deliver anything like peaceful coexistence between North and South, between the Sinhalese and Tamils. Any alternative will come from within the system, will be backed by the military and be far more hawkish.
At a Presidential election which is a popularity contest between Mahinda and Ranil, the figure for the incumbent may rise while that of the challenger/competitor/the other guy will drop below the percentage obtained at these provincial elections, not least because every defeat has a knock-on effect. The spectre of a Chandrika comeback or proxy candidacy of her son is rendered silly because the 35%-40% gap between Mahinda and Ranil cannot be bridged or significantly affected by any such aspirant spoiler.
The emergence of General Fonseka’s Democratic Party as the third force in the South i.e. among the Sinhalese, shows that the last war remains the source of legitimacy and conversely illegitimacy among the Sinhalese (with Ranil being de-legitimised by definition). It also shows the ideological direction in which discontent and dissent are flowing—towards a leadership which is rooted in the military victory of 2009 and represents a tougher minded Rajapaksa-ist nationalism without the family factor. This indicates the kind of leader and candidate the UNP must pick and the direction in which the party must shift. It must pick a new leader before this year is out if it is not to lose more votes to the UPFA and the DP. It is an imperative to avoid irrevocable electoral extinction and the resultant long duration degeneration of Sri Lanka from democracy to something else.