The decision by the leader of the National Unity Alliance (NUA), Minister Ferial Ashraff’s to join the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) in February 2010 raises serious questions for Muslim politics in Sri Lanka and minority politics at large. She did not announce a formal disbanding of NUA, the party’s fate remains unclear. Although NUA is not an exclusively Muslim party it emerged from and is closely linked to Muslim minority politics. A central question arising from this move is whether this is part of a larger shift away from minor and minority political parties which would give way to the consolidation of the major national political parties (like the SLFP) in the East and North or is it just part of the political hopscotch endemic to current Muslim and Sri Lankan politics at large? It may still be too early to answer this question, especially given that the results from the general elections are still being counted. Yet, it may prove useful to discuss the significance of this development as a part of a larger exercise of self-reflection on post-war politics.
The End of a Multi-Ethnic Vision?
The principal charge that Ferial Ashraff will have to confront by switching parties is that she has betrayed the political legacy of her husband. But this is a charge that she has long had to withstand particularly from the stalwarts of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) – the party that M.H.M. Ashraff co-founded. In death, political figures and their ideologies become caricatures of what they were in life, with various actors claiming to be the true interpreters of their legacy. There are a number of political groups who claim to be the true torch bearers of Ashraff’s political legacy. How Ashraff would have responded to this current post-war context is an intriguing question. Would he have continued with the SLMC; attempted to reconfigure national politics through NUA; or joined a national political party? This question is best left to those more familiar with his politics and personality.
NUA is seen to be brain child of the late Ashraff, whereby he sought to go beyond the communal politics of the SLMC and create a party that could provide a new multi-ethnic vision for the East and Sri Lanka at large. NUA as it stood a few months ago was clearly a work in progress but nonetheless offered a critical symbol for post-war Sri Lanka. In the East, a number of politicians rely on top up votes from ethnic communities, other than their own, but very few can claim to have solid constituencies in areas dominated by other ethnic communities. Ferial Ashraff is one of those rare politicians. Despite political attempts to undermine her leadership particularly within the Muslim community on account of her gender, she has held her own. As to whether NUA could have carried its constituency, particularly from the Sinhala Community, if it moved out of the UPFA alliance and into to the opposition is questionable, suggesting that the vote base is tied to personalities within a particular political configuration (SLFP led coalition) as opposed to outright loyalty to the party and its leaders.
The basic purpose for which NUA was established seems so pertinent, especially at a moment when Sri Lanka is grappling with the challenge of forging a post-war outlook and finding a balance between meeting the needs of individual ethnic communities and addressing the challenge of forging a new Sri Lankan social contract. If NUA had been able to establish a truly multi-ethnic base incorporating Muslims, Sinhalese and Tamils it could have shown the way forward for politics at a national level. NUA could have ushered in a political culture based on pluralism that could have ameliorated and offset the increase in communalism. This could have ultimately been the real political check on communal tendencies, which intensified during the war years. While communal tensions, including between Tamils and Muslims pre-date the war, they intensified during the armed conflict resulting in ghettoization of administration and even communities. Challenging this communalization, while ensuring greater attention to marginalized areas and groups, is a serious responsibility for all political and civil society actors, regardless of political outlook.
But NUA never quite made it. NUA’s impact on the altering the overall communal nature of politics which is a Herculean task, was minimal. The party focussed primarily on securing a vote base through service delivery to particular areas and finding mediated solutions for specific administrative problems as a demonstration of pluralism. While there were efforts at fielding candidates in other districts its vote base was largely restricted to Muslim and Sinhala constituencies in Ampara. It was effectively one of the many competing district level players that included the National Congress of A.L.M Athaulla which has arguably proved more successful in expanding its base to other areas at least in fielding candidates in elections. If NUA is to fold up the public impression would be that it is a failed attempt at creating a bridging mechanism.
Minority politician shifting from smaller parties to the major national political parties could be seen as a positive attempt to influence the latter party and the leadership from the inside in return for broadening the support base of the party and greater loyalty to the party leadership. In some circles this is also seen as a positive development in strengthening political stability. This shift could provide a significant advantage not just for the politician but also the communities s/he represents, provided that the politician concerned is in a position of strength to put issues on the table. It is not clear that NUA is in a highly advantageous position vis-Ã -vis the governing party to put forward the demands of the communities it represents. Without doubt the current context is less advantageous for NUA and Ashraff to secure key demands in return for joining the SLFP, than it would have been under the previous SLFP leadership. Perhaps one needs to understand the timing in terms of the attempts by political parties to adapt to the post-war context. However, it also seems a clearly pragmatic step towards self- preservation of the political leadership of NUA by ensuring electoral victory. While the ruling alliance expects to secure a majority of seats in Digamadulla District, the manape battle in the government list was always going to be tight. A poster appeared a few weeks after her move calling on Sinhala voters in Ampara to vote for Sinhala candidates but it is not clear how this will impact on the voters and what steps the SLFP leadership has taken to counter this campaign.
While the impact of this recent move on NUA, at least in the short term, is clearly negative. As to how it will impact the wider political context and society is yet to be seen. As to how she attempts to impact the SLFP from within while using parliament to advocate for people’s rights over the coming years will determine the success of her move. But first she will have to secure entry into parliament or will have to take up the more difficult challenge of building her party. There is a possibility that the switch is tactical and that NUA is in cold storage and will be brought out at an appropriate time. This author would argue that a revitalized NUA could play a critical role in the post-war East, where it could attempt to create a multi-ethnic party representative of the region. This would require the infusion of ‘new blood’ and ideas into the party. The re-emergence of such a party would not just hold symbolic value but could serve as a means of reconciling ethnic communities in the post-war context.
Minority Parties at Risk?
A common perception of minority politics at this current moment is that it is in a position of weakness. The election result will prove critical in defining the strength of minority politics at least in the short run. While minority democratic politics was disempowered by the war and targeted by violence both at the hands of the Government and Tamil militants, by the end of the war the leverage of minority parties vis-Ã -vis the Government has further reduced.
There are concerns that there are political attempts aimed at weakening minority politics. Two manifestations of this trend that are cited are the attempts at electoral reform and efforts to encourage minority politicians including Tamil leaders from the North and East and now Muslim leaders to join the SLFP. A local government election bill that was put forward last year proposed an increase in the cut-off point from 5% to 12.5%. This electoral reform bill was defeated but the Government is pushing for electoral reforms for parliament post-general elections. A two thirds parliamentary majority for the Government would increase the chances of such a change taking place. If the reforms increase the cut off mark and introduce an electoral system that is weighed in favour of First-Past-the-Post as opposed to Proportional Representation it would reduce the opportunity for minority and minor parties to enter parliament and would therefore result in making the institution less representative.
The NUA leadership joining the SLFP is not a unique development in terms of minority politics. Almost a year before NUA’s move, V. Muralitharan was the first to fall in line along with a whole host of TMVP area leaders and members who formally joined the SLFP. Tamil leaders such as Douglas Devananda of the EPDP and S. Chandrakanthan of the TMVP have attempted to resist and insist (not all successfully) that they should compete under their own symbols rather than under the UPFA in the parliamentary elections. Doing so is important for these parties and leaders in order to prove to their constituencies that they are not just paramilitaries functioning at the behest of the state but that they are attempting to transform themselves into political actors that have fully embraced democratic politics and want to respond to the aspirations of their respective communities.
The SLFP leadership does realize that encouraging and pressurizing all minority government allies to join the party may prove counter-productive and could result in opposition gains. It is speculated that the Government has pursued a dual strategy. While a number of former M.Ps who were rejected by the TNA have been included into the UPFA list but their party association remains unclear. In parallel, in the lead up to the elections we have seen is a mushrooming of minor political parties and independents joining the electoral fray. This could be seen as an indicator of the restoration of democracy in the North and East. Yet, at the same time there are concerns that the large number of competing parties and independent groups are part of the Government’s strategy for dividing the opposition and minority vote by confusing the voter. The post-election scenario is only likely to further muddy the water, as it is possible that we will see a number of newly elected M.Ps from the opposition crossing over to the Government. As to how this all plays out will depend on the leadership qualities and ultimately the credibility of both the minority politicians and figures in Government.
While there is a clear need for minority politicians and parties to re-think their politics and strategies to forge more pluralistic positions and alliances, the national political parties cannot escape their own responsibilities of becoming truly national and shedding their majoritarian pasts. If the SLFP is serious about reclaiming a base in the North and East requires a more holistic approach. Broadening the representative nature of the SLFP should be welcomed but the party needs to engage in a dual process of strengthening minority representation within the party and ensuring party commitment to measures that would respond to specific ethnic grievances, ranging from immediate humanitarian and welfare to a political solution that would meet the needs of all communities. The fear is that the current measures are aimed more at weakening minority parties, in a context where the SLFP seems to have regressed in its position on the ethnic question.Â Development and democracy for all without acknowledging existing marginalities and disparities will only increase insecurity and communalism, in addition to fuelling the causes that had led to the outbreak of war. In terms of Government policy statements what needs to happen is to go beyond â€œthere are no minorities” to â€œthere are no majorities and no minorities.”
While the UNP has been found wanting in terms of raising key issues affecting minorities, it has proved willing to advocate minority friendly policies. Even though it continues to have a support base in the East and North, it has tended to give way to its minority political allies. While it is seen as more minority friendly the UNP needs to review its strategy on how it raises issues impacting minorities and marginalized groups in a more comprehensive manner.
It is difficult to talk about the survival of minor and minority parties in contemporary Sri Lanka without speaking about the state of political parties. Democracy is defined by two basic features the participation of the public and accountable and representative institutions of state. While there are a number of institutions whose effectiveness defines the health of a democracy, political parties function as the basic building block to sustain the process of democracy. While democratic political parties have faced a variety of threats, including the targeting of its leadership and cadre by armed actors over the last three decades, due to the War and the Insurrection in the South, the very concept of political parties is under siege.
The last parliament has seen the highest number of members of parliament crossing from one side to another. While some of the individual politicians may have done it for principled reasons, others seem to have done it for the perks of office, which has ended up strengthening the patronage political system. If we want to escape communalism we will also have to weaken the patronage political system else the only way governance and development needs can be met is for every sector and area in Sri Lanka be given a separate member of parliament and a minister. According to this logic areas that do not have a M.P in Government, let alone a Minister will therefore be marginalized.
The cross over phenomenon has resulted in a further loss of public confidence in the credibility of politicians. Voters tend to choose their candidates on the individual qualities of the potential M.P and as a representative of the party. Crossing over has also had a knock-on-effect on the political stability of political parties. If the cross overs from the opposition intensify post-general election, Sri Lanka could come to resemble a ‘one-political alliance state.’ The idea of an all encompassing alliance may be popular because the current panacea for all of Sri Lanka’s problems is ‘political stability.’ Thus there is a possibility for the next Sri Lankan Parliament to have a multiplicity of political parties and leaders, but the opposition would be weak and unable to act as a safeguard. It is easy to solely blame the Government for this, but this is a manifestation of a larger crisis â€“ the absence of democracy within political parties and the tolerance for authoritarian practices and the disregard for the rule of law within Sri Lankan society. The challenge therefore is how to strengthen the values of democracy in Sri Lanka, including accountability of politicians and the State.
The case for Minority Parties
It is a truism that communal political parties are by their very nature divisive. In some quarters there is a perception that by weakening ‘communal minority parties’ Sri Lanka ensure that peace is strengthened. To present the solution to the scourge of communalism as the ending of communal party politics is naÃ¯ve and overtly simplistic, especially when communalism and communal tendencies have taken such deep roots within the major national political parties. Some of the leaders of minority parties in Sri Lanka may in fact have the most plural visions for the country and have spoke out on behalf of other communities, even when leaders of that same community have opted for silence out of political expediency. These same leaders have rhetorically, at least, continued to stand for the rule of law and commitment to the constitution. While articulating the concerns of their particular community, they have been able to continue to insist for a united Sri Lankan identity and values of democracy and justice that supposedly bind us, but continue to be undermined. It is not a coincidence that many progressives and liberals have found more in common with representatives from some minority parties, as opposed to the major national political parties which have been responsible for flouting the social contract with the people- especially in terms of the idea of a multiethnic Sri Lanka committed to the rule of law.
While the primary factor driving the emergence of mass communal party politics among the Muslims was the exclusiveness and militancy of Tamil Nationalism, the failure of national political parties to take up the interest of the Muslims in the East and North in an effective manner provided the space and the motivation. The impact of the war particularly the victimisation, suffering and insecurity of the Muslim community primarily at the hands of the Tamil militants, especially the LTTE cannot be over stated. It also needs to be recognised that Muslims were the last community in Sri Lanka to embrace mass communal party politics given that the Tamils, Sinhalese and Up-Country Tamils all had a head start. The SLMC was able to expand from its base in the East to the North, at the cost of Muslim politicians from the main national parties, the SLFP and the UNP.
From the perspective of someone in the East it would seem there was little point in voting for the opposition yesterday as they cannot fulfil much of the ‘hardware’ needs of the community in the coming years. During the last administration, despite the large number of Muslim Ministers and MPs, a leadership vacuum was felt in the community, particularly during humanitarian and human rights crises. The SLMC, in opposition and Government has to some extent been able to voice the community’s position, although there continues to be disenchantment with its approach and consistency. The political space for the SLMC depends on the failure of other Muslim politicians and other political parties to take up the interests and issues of the community, including the return of the expelled Northern Muslims or the land disputes in the East. The main advantage for the Muslim Community in the East with regards to the SLMC is that it sees the need for structural changes with regards to the Constitution and other key mechanisms of state structure and policy which go beyond patronage politics and personal relationships between Muslim politician leaders and the incumbent. Thus, the SLMC could play a critical role in addressing the underlying causes which led to the outbreak of war and in strengthening national unity. Beyond that there has to be a concerted effort within the Muslim polity for Muslim politicians to reconnect with their constituencies to address all the concerns of their constituencies while making the effort to build bridges with the political leaders of other communities to structurally address some of the common problems.
A Post-War Vision
It is clear to many minority political parties, politicians and activists that in the post-war context it is proving increasingly difficult to operate on exclusively communal terms, unlike in the past. Thus, there is a pragmatic reason for being pluralistic. Beyond that, if any of these parties really do want to commit themselves to creating a lasting peace they will have to create a working relationship with other minority parties, progressive minor parties and the major national parties. This would require a strategic re-thinking within minority parties on issues of common concern, regional minorities and the concerns of marginalized groups within the Sinhala community. Minority parties will face the dual challenge of advocating solutions for ‘everyday’ needs (humanitarian and development issues) and for addressing structural and political issues. The delicate balance for minority parties will be between protecting the needs of their respective communities without exploiting ethnic divisions for pure political gain. Minority parties and politicians, for their part need to engage and play a more active role in this wider debate on democracy and the rule of law, not just intervene when their respective communities or their specific party positions are affected, while strengthening the democratic space within their communities and political parties.
While there is a clear need for minority politicians and parties to re-formulate their politics and strategies to forge more pluralistic positions and alliances, the national political parties cannot escape their own responsibilities of becoming truly national. The national political parties need to provide space for discussions on these issues within the party structure. If there is a genuine desire to bring communalism to an end, this two-way process is absolutely essential. Squashing minority parties alone may have short term political dividends but could end up shutting democratic spaces for dissent and end up in radicalizing sections of Sri Lankan society. Instead, the onus is on providing space for all political parties and broadening the political platforms of major national politics.
But then do they dare?