Photo by Ama Koralage

For the first time, Sri Lanka’s presidential election in October will have three main contenders – President Ranil Wickremesinghe contesting under an independent symbol, the SJB represented by Sajith Premadasa and the NPP/JVP by Anura Kumara Dissanayake. There is speculation about a common Tamil candidate as well as rumours of Namal Rajapaksa coming forward as the SLPP contender.

If some polls and word on the street are to be believed, Mr Dissanayake is firmly in the lead, followed by Mr Premadasa with President Wickremesinghe trailing behind. However, voters can always be swayed by several variables that may come up in the coming months as they were by the April 2019 Easter Sunday attacks that played a major part in President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s sweeping win in November of the same year.

Writing in his column, political analyst D.B.S. Jeyaraj said, “According to several analysts, this triangular tussle may prove to be a close contest. As of now, it is surmised that all three major candidates may divide the Sinhala vote in near equal proportions. This assumption is based on the current situation where an election is yet to be officially announced. When election campaigns are underway, electoral dynamics would fluctuate and assessments may vary.”

He said the Sinhala vote would be fragmented so that no single candidate would be able to get 50% of the vote on first count. “In a situation where the Sinhala vote is trifurcated, the Tamil and Muslim votes, if delivered en bloc, may determine who the 2024 Presidential hustings victor is likely to be.”

Despite being regularly let down by successive governments who make election promises that are never realised when in power, the voter turnout in the north has usually been 65 percent and above.

The Tamil parties are divided with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) broken into two factions. The Ilankai Thamil Arasuk Katchi (ITAK) is also in two camps while one Tamil party is calling for a boycott of the polls.

The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) is with the SJB in the opposition although analysts believe it will throw its hand in with President Wickremesinghe.

President Wickremesinghe has been popular among the Tamil and Muslim voters because of his stand on devolution and reconciliation, although this has been mostly in words and not deeds. A common Tamil candidate could take away some of his Tamil votes while the recent violent police crackdowns in the east on people commemorating the end of the war 15 years ago has lost him some backing. Also, Tamils in the north are some of the poorest and marginalised people in the country and the government is not seen as providing them with support.

Against this complex background, Groundviews spoke to three academics from the Jaffna University about any enthusiasm for the forthcoming presidential elections, what the minorities could gain from it and the impact of a common Tamil candidate.

Dr Mahendran Thiruvarangan Senior Lecturer at Jaffna University

I believe that the presidential election shouldn’t happen at all because at the 2015 election the people gave a clear mandate to abolish executive presidency. During the aragalaya one of the central demands was to get rid of it. Now all political parties don’t want to take a position on abolishing the presidency. The idea of a common Tamil candidate comes from a Tamil nationalist political perspective. The argument advanced by proponents of this idea is that you need to field a common candidate to show the international community and people in the south that Tamils are united and don’t want to be seen as a people who elect southern leaders who have no commitment to devolving powers or finding a political solution to the ethnic question. However, everyone knows that a common Tamil candidate would not be able to win. In certain elections minority communities have been king makers. Also a space can open up when you support a particular candidate as happened with the election of Maithripala Sirisena when there was more tolerance for democracy, giving us a breathing space after years of repression. We need to have discussions and think about issues and see what the candidates are going to put forward as their vision for the country and for the minorities and the political question. The common Tamil candidate idea will create fissures in the Tamil vote and may work in favour of someone who is authoritarian and repressive and who is not interested in reforms. Those who support Tamil nationalism are invested in the idea. When a chauvinistic member of the Rajapaksa clan was a candidate, it was easy for the Tamil people to vote for the opposition candidate. The three way scenario is new and it will be difficult for people to decide who is most Sinhala Buddhist nationalist. Middle class segments may vote for Ranil Wickremesinghe because they believe in his economic agenda. Perhaps Tamil parties coming together to ask Tamils to back one of the three main candidates would be helpful instead of going with this nationalist approach of mobilising people around a Tamil candidate.

Professor Kosalai Mathan Head of the Department of Law at Jaffna University

Most people have no hope or trust in their elected representatives who make a lot of promises but deliver nothing once they are elected. The election is a failed mechanism because no one has effectively addressed the issues facing the country, especially the minority demand for power sharing. The non-implementation of 13th amendment is a violation of constitution. There are new issues that came up after war such as women headed households, enforced disappearances, mental health problems and environment degradation. There has been a failure of the government to give effective solutions to the people in north who now have no faith or trust in the government. We also encounter religious intolerance where our religious places are encroached upon as well as taking over of land. The Archeological Department is trying to manipulate history by undermining the existence of Tamils. Tamil people are disappointed and have no interest in any sort of election. A common Tamil candidate is being proposed to tell international community that Tamils are not in favour of the southern leaders. But there are two sides, one in favour and one not. The Tamil community has not come to a conclusion as to its stand for the upcoming presidential election. How loyal are parliamentarians to their constituency? We need a systematic, serious government that has a clear understanding of the problems facing the country. Many questions have been prolonged for a long time such as finding a suitable form of government and settling the question of an unitary versus federal system. Even by reforming the constitution several times, we have not come up with an answer and we are not discussing it. There is religious intolerance and discrimination on grounds of language, ethnicity and religion. Political corruption and the economic crisis become additional problems. People do not want to live here, especially younger generation who are getting a free education and then migrating for a sustainable life. The country is not in the way it is supposed and it is the responsibility of the government to address these issues. The best way to accommodate diversity is through the constitution. It is the only way to get the trust of the people that this is our country and we are Sri Lankans. The nation building aspect is very important. For example, Article 9 of the constitution that gives the foremost place to Buddhism gives feeling to non-Buddhists that they are secondary. The majority community should understand that the concerns of minorities are unique and deserve attention, so that with the support of the majority community, we can move forward and think of a suitable form of government with a secular state and an effective power sharing mechanism to respect each other’s rights and entitlements. I find that Sinhala students can understand the problems of Tamils and are ready to work with Tamils. Tamil students have a good impression of the Sinhalese; this is another way of building up the nation by working effectively through younger generation. People also are not vigilant about the candidate they are voting for and there is no analysis to see what the candidates can do for the community. Representatives are not worried about the people because they know that people will vote for them again. This recklessness must be stopped by people teaching them lesson at the election.

Dr T. Sanathanan, Senior Lecturer at Jaffna University 

People are less interested in elections because they have failed to bring situational change. The common Tamil candidate is a symbolic act that will take away from mainstream candidates and reduce bargaining power. We have no hope because a common Tamil candidate can’t deliver. The unpredictable thing is the new voters coming in who don’t know of the past. Their voting pattern is based on social media; it is like voting for a film star. They have a thrill in voting but their selection has no logic. There is no governance in terms of north and east issues. We are given assurances by the legal system and by the government but these are not safeguarded. Even court orders not carried out by the forces. So what is the whole idea of a nation? It was a concept that we would have a political social entity named Sri Lanka but now people not listening. We have withdrawn from the 1948 national building project. The government is not acting according to constitution. We have lost interest in electoral politics because we can’t communicate with anyone; it won’t change our reality and life patterns. When you are a popularly elected leader from the south it is your role to change popular opinion. Why are we electing you if you are not going to do anything? The Tamil parties don’t know what to do.

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