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In Sri Lanka: Election Opportunities and Risks in the East

April 23, 2008

Amidst the escalating war between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the north, voters in the multi-ethnic Eastern Province will vote on May 10 for a provincial council for the first time since 1988. In 1987, the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord merged the Eastern Province with the Northern Province; a referendum was to make the merger permanent but was never held. In 2006, the Supreme Court voided the merger and the two provinces were subsequently de-merged. According to the 2001 census, the ethnic composition of the Eastern Province is 45% Tamil, 32% Muslim, and 23% Sinhalese. The potential for conflict between the communities looms large if post-election power-sharing arrangements are mismanaged.

Since the 1970s, Tamil political parties have argued that the north and east were traditionally Tamil and should be joined into one politico-administrative unit. Under the 13th Amendment to the Constitution that accompanied the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord, it was but with the de-merger this key demand of Tamil nationalism, reluctantly accepted in 1987 by the United National Party (UNP), has now been rejected. If the UNP gained power again, it is unlikely that it would re-merge the Northern and Eastern Provinces — which was never popular with Sinhalese and Muslims, particularly in the east.

Tamil political primacy within a unified north-east unit was considered a prerequisite of a political solution to the ethnic conflict. Tamil political primacy in the north is still imaginable, but with the LTTE’s change of military fortunes and the de-merger, eventual Tamil primacy in the east is now harder to imagine. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the largest Tamil political party, has refused to contest the election because it does not want to legitimize the de-merger. The Muslim community thus has an opportunity to politically assert itself, regionally and nationally, as it never has before.

The Sri Lankan conflict is often portrayed as a bi-polar conflict between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority. Yet, the substantial Muslim minority is usually ignored. The east-based Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), the largest Muslim party led by Rauf Hakeem, has decided to contest the provincial election on the same ticket as the opposition UNP rather than President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), which governs at the center. As a counterweight, the UPFA has attracted prominent eastern Muslim leaders to its side who have fallen out with Mr. Hakeem. With the SLMC and UNP using the election as a referendum on UPFA rule, the stakes are even higher.

With the TNA standing down, the Tamil vote is likely to be divided between the TMVP, a break-away faction of the LTTE now aligned with the government; a half dozen other Tamil political parties; and the UNP. The TMVP is running on the same ticket as the ruling UPFA. The other Tamil parties are running independently. The Sinhalese vote will be divided between the UPFA and UNP.

This political fragmentation within the three ethnic groups makes it virtually impossible to predict the outcome of the election. Whichever alliance of parties captures the most number of provincial council seats will be in a position to select the influential chief minister.

No matter who wins, the governor is likely to remain a Sinhalese appointed by the central government and the Muslim community is likely to emerge more politically assertive. How then to avoid post-election turmoil and distribute power between Muslim and Tamil political parties?

If the UNP-SLMC wins, the chief minister is likely to be from the SLMC, leaving Tamil parties out in the cold. If the UPFA wins, who will it choose as chief minister — a Muslim leader who has broken away from the SLMC or a Tamil leader from the TMVP? Simply giving the chief minister post to whichever candidate polls the most preference votes, as the government has said it will, may not solve the problem.

In the long term, if the election leads to a truly empowered Eastern Provincial Council that can set priorities, raise revenue, and mediate between the demands of minority communities in the East and a powerful central government, it can strengthen accountability and governance.

In the short term, if political power is not shared within the province, the election could lead to violent conflict. Conflict may be likely because scant thought has gone into a formula for power-sharing that will balance the interests of all three communities — Tamils, Muslim, and Sinhalese ” rather than give dominance to any one. The government may have rushed into an election that it hopes will politically buttress its recent military victories in the east, discounting the risk that it can fan the embers of sectarian tensions. The formula for power-sharing suggested by the 13th Amendment, with a centrally-appointed governor and an elected chief minister, may not be imaginative enough to manage the province’s complex ethnic politics.

Attention from political leaders to new outside-the-box institutional arrangements that can pre-empt post-election conflict is urgently needed.

Nilan Fernando is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Sri Lanka. He can be reached at nfernando@asiafound.org.

View all posts by Nilan Fernando

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